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 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

Alas, poor Gingrich, I knew him well

All ego and scapegoating, he had no one to blame but himself in the end

By Margaret Carlson

TIME magazine

Newt is not going to miss me, but I'm going to miss him. I'll miss his knowledge of Prussian history, his unerring sense of what the Duke of Wellington would do in any situation, his grandiose sense of walking in the boots of Winston Churchill and Ulysses S. Grant. Like Napoleon, he was tall enough to see a future invisible to lesser mortals. A global visionary, he wrote in a calendar unearthed by Slate magazine that on June 30, 1993, he was going to "articulate the vision of civilizing humanity" and, when that was done, "define, plan and begin to organize the help people...pursue happiness." A "transformational figure" doesn't just kick back. His off-time to-do list included "diet, exercise and recreational renewal with [wife] Marianne."

The speakership has affected him like a camera: it added 30 lbs. to his girth and 60 lbs. to his ego. After a trip to Asia, he came back and bragged that Mongolians in yurts were devotees of his Republican revolution. At the center of the cosmological charts he doodled was, no surprise, himself. In his books he was a major historical figure, a planetary visionary, often misunderstood. In former Congresswoman Susan Molinari's book he came off as a blubbering though entertaining megalomaniac. At one point, she recalls, he revealed how heavily he bore his mantle: "I get up every morning and say to myself, 'This is the day I shall die.'"

Friday was the day he died a Washington death, stripping himself of power and becoming in that instant just a guy in a suburban tract house in Marietta, Ga., carrying out the trash. We all should have seen his resignation coming when, on Tuesday night, he came out swinging at the media, blaming them for his party's shellacking. With Nixonian petulance, he rejected suggestions that his party tanked because he had put all its eggs in Monica's basket. No, he said, it was the media's All Monica All the Time madness that kept him from getting his message out. He woke up Wednesday morning but still didn't smell the coffee. He told Katie Couric on the Today show, "Look at all the hours that Tim Russert spent...on [Monica] vs. the number of hours on Social Security."

A quick check with Russert reveals that he offered Gingrich the entire hour of Meet the Press the Sunday before the election to discuss--you guessed it--Social Security, along with the space program, tax cuts, the budget and education. Gingrich declined. In truth, Gingrich had no gripe with the media over its Monica obsession, which allowed him to stoke it quietly behind the scenes. What truly concerned him was that the press's eye had wandered since Clinton's Aug. 17 confession. Too many shows were going off-topic, too many talking heads exclaiming over Mark McGwire and showing boredom with Monica Lewinsky. It was fear of increasing scandal fatigue that prompted Gingrich's biggest blunder of the campaign: devising, testing and spending $10 million on TV spots reminding voters of what a snake the President was--a subject the electorate was trying to forget.

Well, the media charge is laughably bogus. Yet what else is there to do but grasp at scapegoats when, in the blink of an eye, the discussion moves from "Can Clinton Survive?" to whether you can? At the time the intern story broke in January, Gingrich was lost in an issue-free wilderness: the balanced budget and welfare reform had been co-opted, and tax cuts were a diminishing dream. Gingrich looked to Monica as his deliverance from having to come up with a new, new Republican revolution. Oh, the eager, summer-in-Washington look of her, the goofy beret, those chubby cheeks. And a presidential embrace was even captured on videotape! At last all that heat he endured for shutting down the government was paying off: interns had to fill in for paid staff, and one of them wore thong underwear.

Only at one moment did Gingrich appear to back off. He suggested it might take more than a "simple human mistake" to incur impeachment. He may have feared the press might revisit the litany of his simple human mistakes of a sexual nature first detailed in Vanity Fair in September 1995. Otherwise, Gingrich went full bore, vowing at one point to "never again, as long as I am Speaker, make a speech without commenting" on the Monica mess and to start calling a crime a crime. Gingrich lieutenant majority whip Tom DeLay set up a Monica war room, the first place for the press to call to confirm when Monica delivered that fateful piece of pizza to the Oval Office or the date the fed-up Secret Service agent kept her waiting at the gate in sweltering heat until she looked "like she went a couple of rounds with Muhammad Ali." It was Gingrich who orchestrated the early stages of the impeachment proceedings and who insisted on maximum dissemination of both the Starr report and the tape of Clinton's grand-jury testimony.

Finally, the Speaker admitted that he had underestimated how "tired people had become" of Monica. If only he had followed the lead of Tim and Sam and Cokie and Wolf as they followed their Nielsens. It's ironic that Clinton had an affair with an intern in the White House and Gingrich lost his job over it--and that those who drew daggers on him now offer eulogies. At least Gingrich will now have time to civilize humanity and organize the movement for the pursuit of happiness.


Cover Date: November 16, 1998

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