Aside from the political junkies in the mainstream media, the other beneficiary of Newt Gingrich’s unlikely yet spellbinding stardom in the Republican presidential contest is a previously unknown operative named Rick Tyler.
Over the past month, he has become Gingrich’s most visible surrogate, having virtually taken up residence on talk radio and cable television in order to defend the former speaker of the House, and skewer Mitt Romney.
Florida seems to be slipping away from Gingrich under Romney’s sustained, multi-million-dollar onslaught of negative television advertising, but Tyler, like his candidate, is nothing if not pugnacious. As senior adviser to Winning Our Future, the ostensibly independent pro-Newt super PAC funded to the tune of $10 million by casino billionaire and Gingrich pal Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, Tyler has helped produce ads accusing Romney of all manner of perfidy—everything from profiting on the job losses of thousands of workers to pocketing “blood money” from Medicare fraud.
And in a typically provocative appearance last week on MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, he accused the former Massachusetts governor of possibly evading taxes by stashing as much as $101.6 million into an IRA, well beyond the allowable limits for mere mortals. “Mitt would either have to be 3,033 years old or…he may have avoided paying the UBIT tax,” Tyler claimed, referring to the Unrelated Business Income Tax. “That’s criminal.” (Gingrich, who has yet to suggest that Romney belongs behind bars, calls him merely “dishonest.”) Matthews—just one of the cable hosts who have repeatedly booked Tyler in recent weeks—calls him “a great guest” who has “gone from being a behind-the-scenes spokesman to a strong on-air advocate.”
Tyler, 46, spent more than a decade at Newt Inc., as Gingrich’s multifarious enterprises on Washington’s K Street are known, spinning for Gingrich Communications—the publishing, public-speaking, multimedia, marketing and branding arm of his boss’s post-congressional career. He’s so close to the 68-year-old candidate, Newt’s wife, Callista, and two daughters, Kathy and Jackie, that they practically consider him part of the family. But when he signed on in December with Winning Our Future, he took his lawyer’s advice and adopted a personally painful policy of zero contact with the Gingriches and their campaign staff.
“We all adore Rick and it’s put us in a very difficult position where we can’t socialize and we can’t communicate,” says the candidate’s older daughter, Kathy Lubbers, who was president of Gingrich Communications until she resigned last February to join the campaign. “It’s been sad.”
Tyler had briefly served as the Gingrich campaign’s spokesman, but quit last June along with the rest of the senior staff when the candidate rejected their frantic pleas not to go on that notorious cruise of the Greek islands. Instead of seeking a job on a rival campaign, as many of his colleagues did, Tyler retreated to the Virginia farmhouse he shares with his wife, a preschool teacher, and their teenage daughter. He spent five months peeling off aluminum siding, wielding a blow-torch on the ugly paint job, and re-coating the exterior, losing 18 pounds in the process. In late November, when the newly trimmed-down Tyler heard that longtime Gingrich fundraiser Becky Burkett was launching a super PAC “to help Newt,” he called her up and she brought him aboard.
His entry into politics was equally unconventional. After graduating from high school in Maine, where his father owned a chain of carpet stores, he skipped college and headed for San Francisco to toil as an ambitious hotel clerk and bellman, much like Michael J. Fox in the 1993 comedy, For Love or Money, eventually returning home to become the manager of an upscale restaurant in Georgetown, Maine.
“This country is in real trouble, and there’s only one person who can get us back on track, and I believe that’s Newt.”
One day he received a phone call from State Sen. Pamela Cahill, the Republican minority leader. It turned out she couldn’t make ends meet as a Maine legislator and needed a waitressing job. He hired her. In due course Tyler found himself managing her quixotic campaign for governor (she lost) and then, after she was elected Maine’s Republican chairman, working as the state party’s executive director. In 1996, he persuaded Speaker Gingrich to fly up for a fundraiser and by 1999 he was working for Gingrich in Washington.
Otherwise reluctant to be quoted about himself, Tyler explains why he’s back in the fold. “This country is in real trouble, and there’s only one person who can get us back on track, and I believe that’s Newt,” he says. “The other part is that I feel I owe it to Newt, and I’m going to make it up to him and work every day to do that. He took an uneducated kid and made him into something, and I’ll always be grateful.”