06.26.11

'An Evil-Looking Gnome'

Just when things couldn’t get any worse for Newt Gingrich, here comes a Republican colleague with a very long memory.

I have a voicemail Newt Gingrich doesn’t want to hear. The Tiffany's affair, the Newt for President exodus—those were nothing compared to this. 
 
“Bryan, Bob Dornan…” the voicemail begins. “I’d like to talk to you folks about Newt Gingrich. What a piece of work. … The guy that single-handedly left us Dennis Hastert for eight years! The super-hypocrite going after Clinton when he was just as bad!”

You may remember Bob Dornan. Hard-right GOP congressman. Ur-Tea Partier. C-SPAN bellower who, in his Virginia retirement, bellows mostly into my voicemail. Bob has a bone to pick with Newt.

This is my mission,” Bob continues. “I accept it. … Please let me have a piece of the action.”

Bob, who is 78, is this campaign’s leading Newtologist. His study of “Newtie,” as he calls him, began during the 16 full-combat years they spent together as GOP congressman. He holds something of a grudge. But his argument mirrors what—to judge by the polls—a lot of GOP primary voters feel every time Newt opens his mouth. Bob’s argument is that Newt is a pseudo-intellectual gasbag, a moral basket case, and a political performance artist whose campaign is less a bid for the White House than a marketing blitz to pump up “Gingrich Inc.” When I call him back, Bob says he wants to do the nation a service. “I want to get this man the hell out of America’s hair!” he roars.

Bob was first elected to Congress from California in 1976. Newt joined him two years later. “People say to me, ‘What was the best time you had in the House?’” Bob’s answer is his first, pre-Newt term. Bob had denounced Jimmy Carter for canceling the B-1 Bomber (“They’re breaking open the vodka bottles in Moscow!”) and was delivering bazooka-blast speeches on the House floor. Bob was an ideologue in full growl.

“Newt as whip was insufferable,” Bob says. “That intern that said he was a dork and a geek was right. He was the most arrogant person in either party I served with.”

Then the ex-college professor from Georgia showed up. “When [Newt] arrived and I got a load of this guy...” Bob says. “I remember the southeast well of the Cannon Office Building. ‘Hey, Bob, I want you to meet my wife!’ There was this sad woman.” That was Jackie Gingrich, Wife No. 1.

“The late, great Paul Weyrich warned me, ‘This guy has no compass.’”

Before coming to Congress, Bob was a flamboyant L.A. talk-show host. Swaggering self-promoters he could handle. (Hell, he was one.) But Newt was playing a different game. A Rockefeller Republican-turned-Reaganite, Newt aspired to be a back-room apparatchik rather than a demagogue. He was less interested in ideology than in cultivating an image as an ideas man. Bob says Newt told Republicans like Jack Kemp to always carry a New York Times bestseller under their arm, with the front cover turned out, so that the media would take their picture with it. (The Gingrich campaign declined to comment.)

“Then Newt started talking about Alvin Toffler,” Bob says. “I went, Wait a minute, I guested Toffler on Tempo, my TV show, and The Robert K. Dornan Show in the '70s. This guy is a weirdo!”

For all his idea-mongering, Newt wasn’t a hard worker, Bob maintains. Years later, when Bob offered to take him along on foreign trips, Newt would suggest Bob go and report back to him instead. (Bob declined and broadcast his findings on the House floor.) Bob says Newt’s relationships with the future Marianne and Callista Gingrich were open secrets in the GOP caucus. “At the end of the two years,” Bob recalls, “one of the pages, he said, ‘Do you know what we call Mr. Gingrich behind the scenes?’”

“I said, ‘What?’”

“‘We call him a dork, a geek, and a skank’—a word I’d never heard.”

In 1989, George H.W. Bush elevated Rep. Dick Cheney, the GOP whip, to Defense secretary. Newt ran for the whip’s post against Ed Madigan. The race marked a rare Bob-Newt detente. “I’m sorry to say I voted for him,” Bob says, “because as weird as he was to me, Madigan had zero personality.” Newt won by two votes.

I ask Bob what he’d feel like if the margin were slimmer and he’d put Newt over the top. “I would feel like Victor Frankenstein,” he cackles. “I would be the doctor. I would think, What have I created and how do I stop the monster?”

If Newt was image-obsessed as a lowly representative, now he had power. “Newt as whip was insufferable,” Bob says. “That intern that said he was a dork and a geek was right. He was the most arrogant person in either party that I ever served with.” As Newt collected scalps like Democratic Speaker Jim Wright’s, a cult of Newt developed in Congress. Even congressman that didn’t like him confided to Bob that they thought Newt was The One. Newt became the fire-breather, the man Time magazine dubbed the “Republicans’ pit bull.” Dornan, though he had no designs on the leadership, might have preferred to be the pit bull. “Newt Gingrich ruined my subsequent 16 years in the House because it was so hard to operate around him,” Bob says.

The GOP won the House in 1994. (Bob insists it had more to do with Clinton-hating than the Contract with America.) In December 1994, Newt addressed his new charges and reeled off a number of books for freshmen to read, including one by Alvin Toffler. Bob turned to Henry Hyde, the Republican who died in 2007, and said, “Oh my gosh, what technobabble.”

Bob says Hyde replied: “What pyschobabble.”

As speaker, Newt treated Bob like a man treats his least favorite cousin at the family reunion. Bob’s wife Sallie observed that every time Bob turned away from Newt, Newt would scowl or shake his head. In 1994, as a goodwill gesture, Bob met Newt in his office and gave him a NATO medal he’d been given in Europe. “He goes, ‘Oh. Yeah. OK,’” Bob recalls. “Not, ‘Thanks, Bob, for bringing this back to me.”

“I closed that door behind me and said, “‘There is something wrong with this guy, and he’s got it in for me.’”

“On top of everything else, Bryan, he had the most annoying voice in the Congress! … I had to suffer those 16 years listening to this high, squeaky voice, and it was like fingernails on a blackboard.”

If you think the idea of having Newt in public life sounds unappetizing, Bob has been dealing with it since 1979.

In the 1996 elections, Bob lost his House seat to Loretta Sanchez by a few hundred votes. Bob thinks illegal aliens gave Sanchez the winning margin and says Newt didn’t support his bid for a recount. This eats at Bob. He calls it Newt’s “revenge.”

Speaking of eating, Bob can’t believe how Newt looked at the CNN New Hampshire debate on June 13. “Everybody on that stage was trim! … [Rick] Santorum, trim, prepared for a race. [Michele] Bachmann, looking actually beautiful. [Mitt] Romney, looking like central casting sent him…

“And here’s Newt. I can’t pull punches with this guy. He was obese! … He’s an evil-looking gnome.”

As the campaign trundles along, Bob is ramping up his study of Newt. He reads voraciously and scrutinizes every Gingrichian proclamation for inconsistencies. I’m not sure who Bob’s audience is, except for me, but I often find him perceptive. For example, Bob notes that at the CNN debate, Santorum and Bachmann used their opening statements to brag about their kids; Newt avoided family stuff. Bob also says Newt buttoned the wrong button on his suit at the debate. That observation was so perceptive that I couldn’t even see it on the telecast.

“Let me give you a bottom line here, Bryan, why I’m calling you. And not just to get revenge for slights to me. This guy is hurting his country, the presidential process, and his party.”

“If any Tea Party person is for Gingrich, I could disabuse them of it in a minute!”

Bob has a plan. If Newt stays in the race, Bob wants to fly to the next GOP debate and deliver his anti-Newt tirade to Newt himself. He almost did it a few weeks ago—he even had the plane tickets. Bob wants to rise from the audience to ask a question, or confront Newt in the Spin Room after. “If he shows up at another debate,” Bob says, “I’m pretty much gonna promise you, Bryan, I’m gonna be there.”

He wants Newt to know he’s coming. “If you even put in a slight mention [of me showing up], it’ll come up on his media search. … He’ll know that I’m on the path. And I’m gonna drive him out of this race.”

“I want him out of politics! I will wear that sandwich board!”

Advice to Newt: If you see a 78-year-old man enter the Spin Room with a sadistic grin on his face, do not scowl or shake your head. Take Callista by the hand and head for the nearest exit. “I would have loved to have been in that Spin Room,” Bob roars, “saying, ‘Newtie! The end is near! You are a disgrace.’”