Inside Washington's Headlines

by Ken Feltman

Radnor Inc.

April 2007

 

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Ken Feltman is Chairman of Radnor Inc., a political consulting and legislative relations firm in Washington, D.C. He is past-president of the International Association of Political Consultants and the American League of Lobbyists.

 

 

 

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2008: Newt's inoculation

Vanity is the quicksand of reason.

-George Sand

A friend who writes a widely circulated political newsletter called me in early March. He knew I planned an article on former Speaker Newt Gingrich and wanted to know when I would release it. Probably early April, I told him. In that case, he laughed, he would release his Gingrich piece in late March. Gingrich scooped us both. He went on a Christian-right radio program a few days later and admitted to adultery - adultery committed even as he was rallying the righteous against former President Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Gingrich is serious about running for president. Is he kidding himself?

The announced candidates for president have plotted mostly similar strategies. An exception is Gingrich, who has adopted a wait-and-see attitude. Normally, in presidential politics, that is a ruinous decision, as it may prove for former Senator Thompson, Senator Hagel and others who want to have the field thinned before they enter the race. Gingrich is known to be a skilled political strategist, however, so his unorthodox strategy deserves analysis. Now the public knows a Gingrich secret. What does Gingrich know about this campaign that others do not?

The strategy may be his only viable choice. Gingrich is so analytical that he is aware of his own shortcomings and has considered them with a coolness of judgment that is rare in ego-driven presidential politics. His ability to get outside himself and examine his weaknesses is his greatest strength as a politician. His inability to follow through on his strategic plans because of an almost childlike need to seek instant gratification has been his undoing more than once. Which Gingrich will we see as the campaign proceeds? Probably both.

As he decided against joining the list of declared candidates, Gingrich may have taken into account his:

  • Assessment of Hillary Clinton as a candidate

  • Assessment of the other Republican candidates

  • Recognition of his own shortcomings

Planning ahead, Gingrich two years ago teamed up with Senator Clinton to promote healthcare legislation. The pair also worked together on a panel to improve military effectiveness. This allowed Gingrich to take the measure of Clinton. He seems to have decided that he could best her in a head-to-head campaign. He knows his television skills are superior to hers and he seems to believe that he can use those skills to contrast his ?reasonable? personality with her ?opinionated? one.

The new Gingrich

Despite his conservative instincts and record, Gingrich is able to come across as reasonable and friendly in television appearances. He understands the medium. He uses it to project his ?wonkish? ideals in every-day words that people accept as common sense. Clinton struggles with television. She comes across as strident, preachy and inflexible.

Television is such a powerful communications vehicle that it takes a ?cool? person, a smiling and easy-going person, to contrast with and take advantage of the white heat of the lights and cameras. Gingrich was not always good at TV. Originally, he came across as doctrinaire and uncompromising, especially when he led House Republicans during the 1995-1996 battle over the budget which led to the shutdown of the Federal government. Gingrich?s rigidity contrasted with President Clinton?s ?I feel your pain? response. Gingrich then went on TV and inflicted more damage by suggesting that the Republican hard-line over any budget compromise was in part due to his feeling ?snubbed? by Clinton during a trip aboard Air Force One.

In that moment Gingrich?s petulance and inflated self-image combined with his reputation for throwing temper tantrums. All of this reinforced his negative image. Eventually, as the nation tired of the attempt to impeach and remove President Clinton, Gingrich was isolated and resigned from the House.

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After his resignation, Gingrich worked to improve himself, especially his TV skills. He succeeded. Clinton, on the other hand, has not accepted the advice of friends and supporters that she undergo intensive speaker training. She is vulnerable. TV is a ruthless medium that can destroy a politician as easily as it can make a Barack Obama.

Gingrich apparently believes that he can exploit this vulnerability during debates and joint appearances. He believes he can win in November. Now, what about getting the nomination?

Rudy against a weak field?

Gingrich?s appraisal of announced and possible Republican opponents is equally surgical. Sources close to him tell me that Gingrich sees the contest as coming down to Rudy Giuliani or Senator Chuck Hagel against a field of weak conservatives. Of course, that requires that Senator John McCain leave the race or get pushed aside. Gingrich figures that McCain will get pushed aside. He may not be too old, but he looks too old, much older than eight years ago. The mess in Iraq makes McCain?s Vietnam heroism less meaningful, and McCain has managed to pull off an amazing feat: He is taking heat for the failure in Iraq rather than putting the heat to President Bush and his staunch supporters, as he did in 2000. Hagel, a McCain backer in 2000, is peeling off McCain supporters.

McCain has worked so hard to become the inevitable successor to Bush?s policy in Iraq that he has become the successor to Bush?s problems, too. As he courted social conservatives, McCain abandoned the reason many Republicans supported him in the first place. He was not a part of the GOP in-crowd. He was his own man, genuine and forceful. Now, older, he has co-opted himself and lost his force. Gingrich believes that McCain may wither right before us. Gingrich also believes that Hagel lacks the obsessive desire that presidential campaigns require. Hagel recently confirmed his lack of passion for the race when he called reporters to Nebraska for what everyone figured was an announcement that he was running. Instead, he said his family was still considering options. Did he need to have people go to Nebraska to learn he was still undecided?

Gingrich does not see any of the other current candidates as viable. Brownback is too sharp-edged, Tancredo is too one-note, Hunter is too unskilled with the broadcast media. Romney, you ask? No, Gingrich sees Romney as fatally tarnished by his flip-flops on social issues and his Mormonism, which Gingrich thinks will scare the Republican base. Charismatic and an effective fundraiser, Romney entered the race too soon. The media and his opponents will have ample time to slice and dice Romney?s record and his religion. The result will be a bunch of candidates on the right, dividing the conservative vote, while one candidate on the GOP's philosophical left keeps the lead in the polls.

That candidate, likely Rudy Giuliani, will be leading only because there is no attractive leader on the right. The right-of-center candidates will do a dance of dwarfs. They will wound each other, sometimes mortally. Finally, the real Republican establishment will yearn for a true believer. And there he will be: Newt Gingrich! This recycled Gingrich will lack the sins of the old version. He will also lack some of the pounds of the old Gingrich. Slim, inoculated and seemingly reasonable, this Gingrich will be an answer to a conservative?s prayer.

Avoiding scrutiny through early confession

By entering late and confessing one sin early, Gingrich hopes to avoid the scrutiny of his political and personal past that could kill his hopes. This is about as ingenious as self-analysis gets in the ego mosh pit of presidential politics. Gingrich sees that his personal problems are so prohibitive that he must enter when people will be so desperate that they will embrace him, warts and all, as the lesser of two evils. They will not scratch beneath the surface. They will breath a sigh of relief and go happily to their convention to nominate a true conservative: Gingrich!

Two weeks ago Gingrich said that the personal lives of White House hopefuls should not be an issue in the 2008 campaign. So it kind of makes you wonder: Is there more that Gingrich wants the right-wing of the GOP to overlook?

In 1962, at age 19, Gingrich married Jackie Battley, his geometry teacher. They had two daughters. Married and a college student, he received a military service deferment. He even seems to have anticipated the Clinton rationale: A woman named Anne Manning told a writer for Vanity Fair that she had an affair with Gingrich in about 1976-1977. ?We had oral sex,? she reported, because ?he prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, "I never slept with her."?


As Elizabeth Edwards and Tony Snow battle cancer again, friends gather to support them. These are two of Washington's best liked people. When Elizabeth Edwards enters a room - any room - she not only brightens things, she immediately becomes the adult in the room. She may not seem imposing, but people take her seriously. Tony Snow, on the other hand, has a very serious job and has managed to handle it in a lively, friendly and adult way. Reporters remark that he has made everyone's job easier and less confrontational.

In a city that sometimes looks like an unruly grammar school class, we cannot afford to lose two gracious grown-ups. Our prayers are with both.


While Battley was recovering in the hospital after cancer surgery in 1980, Gingrich served her with divorce papers. Reportedly, he refused to pay alimony and child support. Next, Gingrich married Marianne Ginther in late 1981. They divorced in 1999, reportedly because of Ginther?s dislike of Washington and Newt's time away from home. Vanity Fair quoted Ginther in a 1996 article: ?I don't want him to be president and I don't think he should be.? Perhaps Gingrich's abrupt phone call to Ginther saying adios as she tried to celebrate her mother's 84th birthday explains her antipathy. Gingrich soon married Callista Bisek, a House aide 23 years his junior. Possibly his friendship with Bisek contributed to Ginther?s disenchantment with the marriage. Reporters have known about this relationship since at least 1994, before Gingrich became speaker. Vanity Fair described Bisek as Gingrich's ?frequent breakfast companion.?

'I am not running for president'

Other people in other places report on other indiscretions, some involving bounced checks, some involving ethics investigations. So Gingrich may be very wise to confess one sin and try to shorten the time that Republican convention delegates have to delve into the rest of his background. It is part of his plan, which he has discussed with Fortune magazine:

?I am not running for president. I am seeking to create a movement to win the future by offering a series of solutions so compelling that if the American people say I have to be president, it will happen.?

While awaiting the happening, Gingrich is spending time in Iowa, New Hampshire and other key states. He has a fundraising organization, just in case. He has tried to remake himself.

When focused on public policy, Gingrich is a gifted writer. But his historical fiction is lacking a little something. He co-authored 1945, which contains this passage:

?Suddenly the pouting sex kitten gave way to Diana the Huntress. She rolled onto him and somehow was sitting athwart his chest, her knees pinning his shoulders. "Tell me, or I will make you do terrible things," she hissed.?

Yikes! Stick to the public policy stuff, Newt.

And don?t overlook a more viable alternative in case the Republicans need a late entrant in the presidential race: Former Senator Fred Thompson is thinking about it and Chuck Hagel has a pretty solid conservative record and may still be undecided. His one sin is that he broke with the Bush Iraq plan too early. Hagel was right, it turns out, but as Gingrich knows, sometimes it is better to be late rather than early.

 


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