Judging from my phone calls, the political obituaries for Newton Leroy Gingrich are getting the final touches as we prepare for his exit from the 2012 presidential campaign, an exit which is a mirror image of his tortured entrance into the campaign 358 days ago.
The question I get most is, "Has Newt damaged his legacy?"
Herewith my answer:
1. Gingrich’s legacy outside of the immediate environs of the District of Columbia was largely based upon TV appearances on Fox, co-authoring two books a year (one fiction, one nonfiction), and giving speeches (by his own account earning about $60,000 each).
Most people–inside and outside the Beltway– never knew about the Center for Health Transformation or his other group, American Solutions.
If it were general knowledge that Newt was knocking down $20K per month as a consultant to Freddie Mac, most people in Washington would have said, “That’s about the right number for a former speaker of the House,” then gotten back in line at Starbucks.
2. Running for president and losing doesn’t necessarily mean being placed permanently, Quasimodo-like, into the stocks, with people jeering and throwing rotten fruit at you.
Hillary Clinton became secretary of State. Mike Huckabee got a juicy TV contract. Mitt Romney became the nominee next time around. Rick Santorum will do very well financially over the next four years.
Gingrich isn’t likely to get a new deal with Fox, although some polling might convince Roger Ailes to forgive and forget. CNN or MSNBC, however, might well be interested in putting Newt on their payroll.
3. There is an old saying in politics that you can come back from anything but being the object of ridicule. Fairly or not, Gerald Ford and Dan Quayle never recovered. Neither will Herman Cain, nor Rick Perry. Gingrich became the object of jokes, but they haven’t reached the level of widespread ridicule.
Cain should never have been taken seriously as a major political figure and won’t be in the future. Perry should have taken the race more seriously but didn’t, and will forever be known for the “Oops” moment. Michele Bachmann wasn’t strong enough to carry the load as frontrunner, but if she returns to the House, she will have lost nothing.
4. Bill Clinton has outlived the Lewinsky scandal. Richard Nixon died with most Americans grudgingly giving him his due as a big foreign-policy thinker, even if they never forgave his misdeeds on the domestic front. Jimmy Carter is the Ron Paul of ex-presidents: he won’t go away, but you learn to ignore his presence.
We have learned again during this primary election period that it’s not so much that people have short memories; it’s that they have real lives, and politics for them (unlike us) is not the center of their lives. It's a diversion, much like pinochle or gin rummy were in the days when there were only three TV channels. Politics, for most people, is something to pass the time with between dinner and bedtime.
5. Even at his most unbearable—i.e. when he is winning big and gloating or losing big and whining—Newt is an interesting man to talk to and generally fun to be around. He picks up the tab when it’s his turn, and actually returns phone calls and e-mails.
Associations will still pay at least $60,000 to hear him speak, he will still participate in writing two books a year, and it is likely he will end up with some media firm offering him a contract.
Newt will be fine.