Newt's Reagan Fantasy

Before Newt Gingrich runs against Obama, he's resurrecting Reagan through a new documentary. The former Speaker talks to Lloyd Grove about what the GOP needs now—and whether he's the solution.

05.20.09 11:13 AM ET

When the house lights came up at last night’s New York premiere of Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny—a triumphal documentary narrated by Newt and Callista Gingrich—women in the audience sniffled. Grown men dabbed their eyes.

The movie, funded to the tune of $1.1 million by the conservative activist group Citizens United and commercial real-estate developer Lawrence Kadish, was the occasion of yet another sentimental get-together in the extended Republican wake—with a dollop of nostalgia and perhaps a dash of necrophilia—that has kept right on going without surcease since the 40th president of the United States quietly expired in 2004.

Newt noted to rousing applause that “the present drift toward debt, socialism, and weakness is a brief detour in the march toward freedom.”

Actually, much longer than that: The poignant celebration of all things Reagan hasn’t really stopped since he left office more than 20 years ago and subsequently announced that he was losing his mind to Alzheimer’s disease. It’s all part of the state-of-the-art myth-making machine (innumerable tributes, fundraising dinners, movies, hagiographies, and naming ceremonies) that constitutes Reagan Inc.—a juggernaut that has given the Kennedy family more than a run for their money.

“Newt and I love President Reagan and what he stands for,” the former Speaker of the House’s wife, Callista, told me as her guests filed out of the Directors Guild of America auditorium in Midtown to much-needed drinks on the floor below. Perfectly blond, she was trim and stylish in Republican pearls and an elegant black suit. “We wanted to remind people of the horrors of communism and the dangers of unprincipled leadership—and we wanted to share his story with all Americans, especially young Americans.”

There were not many young Americans in the well-heeled crowd—a lacquered and manicured subset of Obama-loving Manhattan—unless you counted camouflage-wearing teenagers from the White Plains Young Marines and a blue-uniformed female Marine sergeant who belted out an American Idol-worthy rendition of  "The Star-Spangled Banner” while everyone in the audience stood at attention (probably a first for this Hollywood industry venue).

And there were only a few brand-name Republicans in attendance, such as corporate lawyer Edward Cox, husband of Tricia Nixon and son-in-law to the 37th president; failed Hillary Clinton opponent Rick Lazio; former Richard Nixon muse Monica Crowley (who toiled for the disgraced president during his exile in Saddle River); and Crowley’s fellow Fox News regular, GOP pollster Kellyanne Conway.

The chirpy Crowley emceed the evening, and at one point recounted that when a declining Reagan paid a visit to Nixon in New Jersey, she posed for a snapshot between the two ex-presidents and somehow managed to “goose them.” Newt told the crowd: “I find every experience to be a learning experience, and one of the things I’ve learned tonight is to be very careful about how I stand near Monica.” Then he noted more earnestly, to rousing applause, that “the present drift toward debt, socialism, and weakness is a brief detour in the march toward freedom.”

Of course, the elephant in the room—with the Republican Party on the ropes—was the question of which Reagan wannabe will lead them back to glory. GOP talking head Joe Watkins, a former aide to Sen. Dan Quayle and the first President Bush, gestured at the silver-helmeted, broad-beamed Gingrich, who was a few feet away, posing for grip-and-grins. “He could easily be the Republican nominee in 2012,” Watkins said.

“We’ll see—anything’s possible,” said Callista, Newt’s wife of nine years (they fell in love when he was Speaker and married to his second wife, and she was a staffer on the House Agriculture Committee). “I suspect in a year, we’ll have a serious conversation again.”

Newt told me dismissively: “People are allowed to have fantasies.” But who else on the scene can live up to Reagan’s legacy? “Reagan was remarkable—he was sui generis. It’s like Thatcher or Churchill. You only know in retrospect—you look back later and go, ‘Wow,’” Gingrich explained. “Are there people capable of growing into that? Sure. Bobby Jindal could grow into that. Whether he’ll do that by 2012, who knows? Paul Ryan is an extraordinary leader in the House. He has enormous growth capability.”

Ever the history professor, Gingrich added: “Look you have to go back to ‘76 and ‘77. When Jack Kemp passed away [Gingrich attended the funeral last week], Bill Kristol recalled that his father Irving said to him, ‘Well maybe we can get Kemp to run because Reagan will be too old.’ There were no natural leaders of the Republican Party in 1977. Reagan was the frontrunner but nobody conceded he would be the nominee. So he became the nominee in May or June of 1980. Well, that comparable period for us is May or June of 2012.” Of course, in 2012, Gingrich will be 69, the same age that Reagan was when he won the presidency. “Well, more or less,” Newt agreed.

For the moment, he’s busy trashing Nancy Pelosi (“As a matter of national security, we need somebody else in the speakership”) and making nice with the Rev. Al Sharpton, with whom he recently attended a “fun” White House meeting on education hosted by President Obama. “He’s very cerebral, very controlled, very pleasant, and a serious, competent person,” Gingrich said about the president, adding that “Al and I over the last year have developed a real friendship out of a mutual belief that bad schools destroy children.”

At the afterparty, a tall, intense man named Guillermo Cowley, a self-described journalist and member of the landed gentry with residences in Palm Beach and Manhattan, towered over Callista Gingrich, who listened politely as he told her about his Cuban cousin who had been Fidel Castro’s tutor and later became a high Communist official. “These days, in this country, all the college campuses are filled with liberals and communists,” he added. “You should make a documentary about that!”

Callista laughed and smiled wanly. “I’m not sure that that’s the right documentary for us to make right now,” she said, and then she excused herself to get a glass of wine, leaving me alone with Cowley as he reminisced about the many splendors of growing up rich, and how lucky his poor nanny considered herself to have a lovely home with his generous family. “She slept in the same room I did, in the bed next to mine, ate the same food, I did,” he said. “It Old World. I’m Old World. It’s the world that Ronald Reagan was trying to save.”

And did he miss that world and Ronald Reagan?

“It like Gone With the Wind,” Cowley replied. “If you lived in the world of Gone With the Wind, wouldn’t you miss it?”

Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.