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Moon Colonies, Penguin Bites, and John Wayne: Why We’ll Miss Newt Gingrich

A look at why reporters liked covering the ex-speaker, from his John Wayne fixation to his plan to colonize space and his fondness for Ellis the elephant. By Ben Jacobs.

Chuck Burton / AP Photo

Newt Gingrich’s exit from the presidential race last spring was sad not just for the candidate and his supporters but for the press. Unlike Mitt Romney, Gingrich could always be counted on to say or do the unexpected. How many other candidates have been bitten by a penguin while on the trail, proposed expansive plans for moon colonies. Or written three-volume alternate histories of the Civil War? Here are some of the most interesting anecdotes plucked from more than two decades of in-depth profiles of Gingrich.

‘I Was a 50-Year-Old at 9’

Gail Sheehy’s 1995 Vanity Fair profile of Gingrich captures the then House speaker as a prematurely old man: “‘I was a 50-year-old at 9,’ he says. ‘I had imprinted John Wayne in his mid-40s as my model of behavior.’ One of his all-time favorite Wayne movies was Sands of Iwo Jima, in which the star plays Sergeant Stryker, the friendless, combat-hardened unit leader of a Marine rifle squad who makes a victim of a new recruit. ‘I embarrassed my father,” the recruit confides to a buddy. “I wasn’t tough enough for him. Too Soft. ‘No guts’ was the phrase he used. Now Stryker, he’s the type of man my father wanted me to be.’”

…But He’s Still Young at Heart

In 2010, Gingrich told John Richardson of Esquire, “There’s a large part of me that’s four years old…. I wake up in the morning and I know that somewhere there's a cookie. I don’t know where it is but I know it’s mine and I have to go find it. That’s how I live my life. My life is amazingly filled with fun.”

Newt the McPherson

In an article Gail Sheehy wrote for The Daily Beast last year about Gingrich’s difficult childhood she notes, “Newt grew to the age of 15 believing that Bob Gingrich was his real father. When he found out that his real father was named Newt McPherson, a fine Scottish name, a great fantasy grew in his mind. ‘Robert the Bruce,’ Gingrich rhapsodized, ‘is the guy who would not, could not, avoid fighting ... He carried the burden of being Scotland.’ To be called Newt the McPherson would be hugely significant. It would mean that Newt was head of the tribe, the supreme leader.”

Newt Finds His Calling

In Peter Boyer’s 1989 Vanity Fair profile Gingrich described how he received his calling in life while visiting the World War I battlefield of Verdun: “‘I got active in this business of politics and self-government in 1958, when my father, who was serving in the U.S. Army, took us to the battlefield of Verdun.’ The boy stared at the bone pile left by the great battle, and ‘over the course of the weekend, it convinced me that civilizations live and die by, and that the ultimate margin in a free society of our fate is provided more by, elected political leadership than by any other group. That in the end it’s the elected politicians that decide where we fight and when we fight and what the terms of engagement are, and what weapons systems are available.’ That awakening, he says, led to a 180-page term paper on the balance of world power. When he turned in the paper, he informed his teacher that his family was being transferred to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he would become a Republican congressman.”

Newt Starts Planning His Presidential Campaign in 1976

Sheehy’s 1995 Vanity Fair profile captured the moment Gingrich first began planning to run for president, before he was even elected to Congress. “In November 1976, ignoring the minor setback of having just lost his second campaign for Congress, he and his acolytes began to plot a presidential run scheduled for 2000 or 2004. According to a close source, ‘We were all discussing the timing, his age, working out the one-term and two-term presidencies in between. I think the plan is still going. I think he will be president.’”

Newt Skywalker

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As a young congressman, according to Richardson’s Esquire profile: “People in Washington called Gingrich “Newt Skywalker” and snickered at his pretensions. ‘He’d walk into every meeting clutching books, trying to send a signal of intellectual gravitas,’ says Mickey Edwards, then a prominent Republican congressman from Oklahoma. His own administrative assistant called him ‘bold but careless, imaginative but undisciplined, creative but sloppy.’ He would rattle around his office in the Rayburn House Office Building until well past midnight, restless and pacing, brainstorming with his staff or talking on the phone to Marianne. His mantra was that the Democrats were a corrupt permanent majority.”

Even His Space Colony Co-Sponsors Found the Idea ‘Pretty Wacky’

Earlier in 2012, as Newt’s proposal for a space colony got attention, I talked to Tim Wirth, a Colorado Democrat who had co-sponsored Newt’s bill for space colonies in 1981. “Asked why he co-sponsored Gingrich’s ‘Northwest Ordinance for Space’ in 1981, Wirth laughed.” I wrote: “Its provisions were then described it to him, noting the bill’s provision for codifying the process to eventually admit a space colony as a state, [Wirth] guffawed, saying, ‘that sounds pretty wacky.’”

Gingrich and Bill Clinton—Doppelgangers?

The Esquire profile by Richardson also touches on the mysterious kinship between President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich: “One night, Marianne says, Bill Clinton called from the White House. She answered the phone and the president asked if he could please speak to her husband. Could the speaker come over immediately? After he hung up, Newt summoned his driver and went in the back door to the Oval Office. During that meeting, he would tell her later, Clinton laid it out for him: ‘You’re a lot like me,’ he told him.’”

Newt’s System Has a Complex DNA

In an exclusive interview with Newsweek’s Peter Boyer in December, Gingrich describes his campaign’s spring implosion last year: “After a stormy morning meeting on June 9, the entire squad of hired political hands was gone from the national team. Gingrich says he felt no sense of betrayal, likening it instead to a corporate merger that didn’t take. ‘We were trying to merge the tactical, political capabilities of people who don’t know anything’—that would be the political pros—‘with a system that is probably the most complex DNA in politics,’” he says. ‘And it was just hopeless.’”

Ellis the Elephant Saved Newt

In January 2012, Gingrich told Matt Bai of The New York Times Magazine that when his campaign was at its darkest: “ ‘One of the things that actually saved us, in addition to Callista’s stubbornness, was Ellis the elephant.’ I checked to make sure I heard this right. Ellis the elephant is the main character in Callista’s new children’s book, Sweet Land of Liberty, New York Times best seller. In what way had a fictional elephant salvaged his presidential campaign? ‘Happy, positive,’ Gingrich replied, searching for the right words. ‘Interesting. Creative. It gave you an oasis psychologically. Literally, Ellis was sort of a ray of light.’”

Newt Likes Animals

Gingrich may be out of the race, but his love for animals remains. No matter what happens to the ex-speaker in the future, there will always be this collection from BuzzFeed’s Andrew Kaczynski of “The 25 Cutest Pictures Of Newt Gingrich With Zoo Animals.”