After 69 years, Newt Gingrich is wealthy, a celebrity, and the owner of a tony home in Northern Virginia. His place in the history books, as the leader of the Republican revolution, has long been established.
But the former House speaker isn’t ready to fade away.
“I don’t rule it out,” he said on Thursday over breakfast, when asked about a future presidential run. He spoke excitedly about his company, Gingrich Productions, and his upcoming trip to South Carolina, where he won the Republican primary last year.
Gingrich’s unflagging energy isn’t surprising. We’ve all known people who have refused to retire. Richard Nixon used to tell friends about his drive to stay “in the arena,” long after his time on the center stage of American politics had passed.
Gingrich, for the most part, has followed the Nixon model for political winter. He keeps busy writing history books, making speeches, and making movies. (A film about Billy Graham is in the works.) He is also obsessed with technology and its implications for the future. He’s already signed up to get Google glasses, driverless cars fascinate him, and he constantly touts online teaching.
“My instinct is that there will be a new generation of ideas, and a new generation of candidates,” he says. “But, you know, I would like to be somebody who plays a role in developing a new generation.”
There has been time for fun, too. Gingrich and his wife, Callista, adore Downton Abbey, a British drama that airs in the States on PBS. “One night last week we were up until two in the morning, because we had to see the next one,” he says. “We’re well into season three now.” His favorite character is Lord Grantham, the show’s controversial and aging patriarch. “I like the old man,” he says with a chuckle. “I identify by age.”
Gingrich warns, however, that the GOP cannot become its own period drama. “Part of the Republican party’s problem is that it’s kind of a silent film, a black-and-white short, in an age when people are used to quadraphonic sound, jump cuts, full color, and HD,” he says.
Behind the scenes, Gingrich has encouraged congressional Republicans to visit majority-African-American districts and urged officials to be more diplomatic with Hispanics. “It’s important because when you go out, and you’re standing in a room and you’re looking people in the face, you begin to realize the limitations of what you can and can’t say, and you begin to realize how they hear it,” he explains.
Gingrich acknowledges that Republicans, especially Speaker John Boehner, face many challenges in the second term. But he doesn’t think all is lost for the GOP, in spite of its stumbles. “I think [Boehner] has actually gained ground,” he says. “I think he’s learned that dealing with Obama is very complicated, much more complicated than dealing with Clinton.”
“Of course, Boehner doesn’t have a Republican Senate, so his position is more complicated than mine was,” he adds. “But my sense is he has begun to figure out a pattern that enables him to minimize Obama’s effectiveness and allows him to consolidate Republicans in the House.”
Immigration is one issue where he thinks the House can gain the upper hand, even though Senate Democrats have taken the lead on that debate. “My guess is the House will pass a bill first,” he says. In such a scenario, he predicts the House GOP could end up significantly shaping the final package by making the first move.
A self-professed “creature of the House,” Gingrich believes that the current group of House Republican leaders, especially former vice-presidential nominee Paul Ryan, should lift the spirits of weary conservatives. “Paul Ryan has the skill set to be a good speaker of the House,” he says. “Ryan can either be a really remarkable policy wonk or he can be a popular politician. He is one of the most popular people in politics.”
The compliment for Ryan was a blessing of sorts from one Republican visionary to another. Gingrich has left the campaign trail and Congress, but he keeps tabs on everything. And he’s glad that Republicans (and reporters) still keep tabs on him.
“Right after I stepped down as speaker, I was up here [near the Capitol] one day doing something,” he recalls. “This one reporter looked up and said: ‘We miss you so much. It was so much easier to figure out stories to write when you were here.’”
That aside made Gingrich’s day.
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.