For much of last year, he was the most venerated, most talked- about, most influential figure in American public life. Then people began to notice - and deride - his feet of clay. What does 1996 hold for Newt Gingrich?
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THE HARSH stepfather, the neurotic mother, the gay sister, the lonely childhood, the love affair with the high school geometry teacher, whom he married when he was 19 and she was 26: Newt Gingrich merits a psychoanalysts' symposium all to himself. Add his habit of rash self-display, his claim to have discovered when he was a boy that he was destined to change the world, his fantasies about weightless sex in space, his fascination with dinosaurs and boa constrictors and Kalahari bushmen who hunt giraffes, his portrayal of himself as "the leader of the Second American Revolution", and you have a character study the like of which even Freud could not have conjured up.

As might be expected, Newt Gingrich has some odd mannerisms. He jerks his neck, upwards and sideways, as if he were being strangled by his tie; he nervously kneads his fingers together; when he is under pressure, and having to lie or be evasive, he says "frankly" all the time; his favourite adjective is "grotesque". Whiny, pudgy, pale, born 52 years ago into a family which lacked wealth and connections, Gingrich none the less pulled off the American Dream, and then some. In November 1994, he led his party, the Republicans, to a crushing election victory. The Grand Old Party seized control of both houses of Congress for the first time since Gingrich was nine years old - whereupon he was crowned Speaker of the House of Representatives, a traditionally discreet office which he invested with so much fire, bombast and authority that for much of 1995, until his decline set in, he was spoken of as the most powerful figure in American politics, as prime minister to a president portrayed as weak, confused and indecisive. His book, To Renew America, topped the New York Times best-seller list for seven weeks. He set the terms of the national debate, and Bill Clinton, bereft of ideas of his own, merely responded to the Gingrich agenda. The question was not whether Gingrich would run for the White House, but when. It seemed he would become for America in the Nineties what Margaret Thatcher was for Britain in the Eighties, the most talked about, most venerated, most despised, most influential figure in public life.

And then, in the last two months of 1995, the bubble burst. The Gingrich revolution began to lose its allure as people started to sense that what it really meant was that the rich would benefit at the expense of the poor. Clinton, merely by being seen to stand up to the Republicans, rose in the polls. Gingrich's popularity nosedived. To more and more people, his boldness looked brash; his visions, grandiose; his promises, babble. His own worst enemy, he came across as a tasteless opportunist when he blamed a much-publicised triple murder in Chigaco on the iniquities of the welfare state. Then, in the middle of a shut-down of government services occasioned by the failure of the Republican Congress and the White House to agree to a budget, he declared that he would have been more accommodating had Clinton not sat him at the back of the presidential plane during a flight to Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. The New York Daily News promptly labelled him "Cry Baby" and portrayed him in nappies in a front page cartoon. The whole nation laughed. "I don't think," a Democratic pollster enthused, "that there's ever been anyone who's become so unpopular so fast without becoming a mass murderer." And yet he was Time magazine's Man of The Year for 1995. What is it about Gingrich? How did such a man rise so far? And why is he falling?

ONE CLUE to the secret of Newt Gingrich's success can be found in a remark he made in December 1994, when a reporter from the Washington Post had asked him whether he owed his success to a talent for playing to the electorate's tune.

Gingrich reacted with surprise and frustration. Here he was in his pomp, his revolution in full flood, and, not for the first time, he had cause to reflect on the pettiness and cynicism of what he calls "the mainstream liberal media". The Republican victory in the election of 9 November had been - he had said as much - "wildly historic". Didn't the reporter understand the significance of the moment? Hadn't he been listening? What was all this about pandering to public opinion?

"It's like saying," Gingrich spluttered, "isn't it pandering for Wal- Mart to stock everything people want to buy?"

Rarely has the Speaker said anything more telling. Wal-Mart is to department stores what McDonald's is to fast food: a huge business which owes its success to a policy of stressing price over quality. Puritan and populist, Wal-Mart is where Middle America shops. It is among Wal-Mart's customers that politicians shop for their votes.

And, as Gingrich indicated, what's good enough for Wal-Mart is good enough for him. Wal-Mart stock the three-piece suites they know people want to buy; he'll stock the ideas he knows will draw supporters to the Republican cause. Gingrich's first question is not, "Is this good for the American people?" but, "How best do I sell it?" In this, he is no different from most of his congressional contemporaries, or indeed from President Clinton. The chief business of the American people, as Calvin Coolidge famously said, is business. Never mind life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, or government of the people, for the people and by the people - politics in contemporary America is an exercise in marketing. Gingrich knows this viscerally, practises it perfectly and rejoices in the power it has brought him.

Power, and the attention that comes with it, was something Gingrich craved from an early age. Indeed, his was an upbringing that, ever blunt, he has described as a "classic psychodrama". He was deprived of a father even before he was born when his mother left her first husband, Newt's natural father, within months of their marriage because he was a drunkard and a bully. Aged just 19, she remarried: Bob Gingrich (who pronounces his name Gingrick) was a stern, taciturn military man who adopted Newt but always viewed his stepson's loquacity and frenzy for applause with distaste. Kit Gingrich strove to give her son - whom she still calls "Newtie" - the affection he needed, but depression, and the pills that she took to calm her nerves, made her distant at times. So the boy Newt searched elsewhere for approval. The high point of his childhood came when he was 10 and he appeared, celebrated for his precocity, on the front page of a newspaper in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after he had appealed personally to the city authorities to build a zoo. His stepfather disapproved; he did not, he told young Gingrich, want to see him in the newspapers again. But the memory of that boyhood rush lingered. He had relished his fame and he was hungry for more. "From that day on," he said much later, "I was hooked on public life."

When Gingrich first ventured into politics, he made mistakes and learnt from them. In 1968, when still a graduate student, he supported the relatively liberal Rockefeller over Nixon for the Republican nomination. Rockefeller did not sell, so in 1972 he campaigned for Nixon. In 1974, armed with a PhD treatise on education in the Belgian Congo, he challenged the Democratic incumbent of 20 years, Jack Flynt, for Georgia's Sixth Congressional District, an affluent, predominantly white seat in Atlanta's northern suburbs. Gingrich ran as a liberal, environmentally-friendly, race-sensitive Republican against a Democrat of the old school, segregationist South - and lost. He tried a second time in 1976; again he ran as a moderate, and again he lost.

But his prodigious energy and live-wire mind attracted attention; John Linder, for instance, a wealthy, conservative financier from Atlanta, says that when he first met Gingrich, in 1975, "I said to myself, if this guy could bottle this stuff and sell it, he'll be a star." By the time the 1978 election came around, Gingrich had got the bottling right. Flynt had retired and, faced by a relatively inexperienced candidate, Gingrich reinvented himself, projecting an image more in tune with the good ol' boy South. He tapped into the Georgian bourgeoisie's notion that a woman's place is in the home by slyly implying that his opponent, Virginia Shaphard, ought not to be neglecting her family by playing politics; he exploited a Southern Baptist tradition of anti-Popery by drawing attention to Shaphard's Catholicism; and he painted her as a child of the Sixties counter-culture. Gingrich defeated Shaphard, as he has defeated every Democratic rival since.

Having made it to Capitol Hill, Gingrich set himself a new goal: to become a figure of national influence. His biggest obstacle, he quickly discovered, was his own party, which had spent a quarter-century in the House of Representatives in languid, courteous opposition. He vented his frustrations to a gathering of Republicans back in his home state: "I think that one of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don't encourage you to be nasty. This party does not need another generation of cautious, prudent, careful, bland, irrelevant, quasi-leaders. What we really need are people who are tough, hardworking, energetic, willing to take risks, willing to stand up in a slug fest and match it out with their opponent."

The Republican grandees paid no heed; Gingrich plotted, and from 1985 became a key member of "the Conservative Opportunity Society", a faction he helped to form. Intellectually, what bound him and his fellow conspirators together was a common resolve to destroy "the Liberal Welfare State". Tactically, their first move was to seize control of the Republican Party from within. What he lacked was money, and an organisation. This came to him in the shape of Gopac, a Republican political action committee whose chairman he became in 1986.

Gopac's explicit purpose was to function as an academy for budding Republican activists; the best recruits were trained to become congressional candidates. Gingrich knew what was needed, and defined the task at hand as the development of "a marketable product". As Gingrich has written, the main lesson he learnt during 60 hours of "tutorials" with the management guru Edwards Leming was a simple one: "The customer should be the focus of any business. The producer must realise what the customer really wants".

Gopac promptly hired marketing professionals to conduct exhaustive polls and focus group sessions. Their objective was to hit upon a menu of products that, in Gingrich's definition, would rank as "65 per centers" - that is, each should generate approval among at least 65 per cent of the electorate. Thus Gopac came up with a list of 133 words for use in speeches, advertisements, flyers, e-mailings. There were "good" words, which Republican activists were to attribute to their own policies and goals, such as liberty, freedom, truth, opportunity, family and hard work; and "bad" words, which you pinned on your opponents, such as decay, failure, corrupt, permissive, pathetic and intolerant. The lessons were conveyed to Gopac candidates on audio- and videotapes, with the result that dozens of the freshmen elected to Congress in 1994 had listened to Gingrich cassettes in their cars, watched him on video at their homes and dreamed of one day emulating their hero. He personally campaigned on behalf of 127 of the candidates who took part in the election. As Paul Weyrich, a wealthy right wing zealot committed to "Christianising America", crowed of the transformed House of Representatives: "Today, they think like Newt, they talk like Newt!" For his enemies, it was the chilling apotheosis of right-wing demagoguery: Gingrich had become "Newtron", America's most dangerous politician, the boss of Newt Inc. For his supporters, he was a prophet who would lead them to the promised land.

Gingrich was lucky with his timing. "What's been happening," he preached, "is that from 1965 to 1994 America went off on the wrong track... After 1965, the government and elite culture adopted ideas that are dramatically different from the traditions and principles of American civilisation." His genius lay in slipping a more controversial, less market-sound idea into the mix: the idea that taking money away from the poor was the just, compassionate and properly American thing to do. In the confusion of the post-Cold War era, with a waffling Democrat in the White House, what Americans hungered for, more than ever, was some clarity. The Gingrich gospel seemed to provide just that.

IT WAS a hunger that could still be tasted last September at the annual convention of the Christian Coalition. Gingrich was at his zenith, and as he walked on to the stage, the 2,000 delegates of the Christian Coalition, well-heeled fundamentalists whose earthly zeal had helped swing the 1994 election the Republicans' way, rose to their feet and bayed "Newt! Newt! Newt!" A good speaker, chatty and folksy one moment, Moses on the mountain the next, Gingrich knew what these people wanted to hear. He bashed "social therapists" and "liberal" newspaper columnists; he denounced the "depravity" and "decay" they taught; he praised "work" and "family"; he declared that America's "extraordinary exceptionalism" was "founded on belief in God, on seeking to understand God's will...

"We emphasise the importance of spiritual beliefs," he proclaimed, "precisely because we know that the Declaration of Independence, a secular document, says, 'We hold these truths to be self-evident.' Not debatable. Not discussable. Not situation ethics. This was not a bunch of college professors who said, 'Being randomly gathered protoplasm, we have rationally concluded that for the moment in this situation...' "

The audience loved it. This was the entertainment they had paid to see. They hooted with laughter; they howled; they leapt to their feet uttering "hallelujahs"; they interrupted with ovation after ovation. Yet, and here's the funny thing, Gingrich is not a religious man. His close friends say that in private conversation he never, ever, talks about God and Christianity. Lee Howell, his speechwriter in the early Eighties, has said that Gingrich would order him to excise such phrases as "God's will" and "God's work". "He freely admitted," Howell told a Gingrich biographer, "that he wasn't sure of what he believed and that sometimes he had real doubts about religion, about the church and the way it teaches." Still, that's par for the Gingrich course; as his fellow Republican, Mickey Edwards, has said: "The media make a great mistake in describing Newt as an ideologue. He has been successful primarily because he is not strongly ideological. He is a good organiser who listened to the frustrations of the Republicans in Congress and figured out the strategy and tactics to help them become a majority. His strength is how to get it done. He's a million miles away from a hardliner like Pat Buchanan. He belongs more in the Ronald Reagan category."

But Gingrich differs from Reagan in one crucial particular, and it is this that has cast him into decline. Gingrich lacks the actor's talent for suppressing the demons loose inside his head; Reagan was quite as conservative as Gingrich, but his rhetoric was amiable and soft, his lust for power disguised. So Reagan was loved; while Gingrich has become the most unpopular American politician since Richard Nixon. The Achilles' Heel of Newt Inc is Newt himself. The hero is tragically, comically, flawed.

"A MAN so various, that he seem'd to be/Not one, but all mankind's epitome./Stiff in opinions, always in the wrong;/Was everything by starts, and nothing long:/But, in the course of one revolving moon,/Was chymist, fiddler, statesman, and buffoon." John Dryden, writing in the mock heroic, captured an image of clownish political ambition in Absalom and Achitophel that anticipated by 300 years the way in which Gingrich is viewed today by a large sector of the American public.

Gingrich has long walked a thin line between brightness and buffoonery. While his admirers have hailed him as a Renaissance Man, his detractors have mocked him as an eclectic pantaloon. He credits a stupendously varied collection of books, authors and personalities with having "left an indelible impression" on his thinking, among them the Duke of Wellington, James Clavell's Shogun, Isaac Asimov, William Gladstone, John Wayne, Zen and the Art of Archery, Stephen R. Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Adam Smith, the 1913 edition of The Girl Scout Handbook and Chimpanzee Politics by the Dutch ethologist Frans de Waal.

Odd enough, but where he leaves most people far behind is in his fascination - and here one cannot doubt his sincerity because politics are not involved - with prehistory and outer space. In To Renew America, for example, he asks the question, "Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park?" And when the Hollywood actress Melanie Griffith visited Congress last year to lobby for protection of the federal arts budget, he invited her to his office to come up and see his replica of a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull. As for the final frontier, he has proposed that the time will soon come when people will be taking holidays in space, honeymooning on the moon, staying in earth-orbiting hotels.

His terrestrial convictions are no less outlandish. "I have an enormous personal ambition," he has said. "I want to shift the entire planet and I'm doing it... What is ultimately at stake in our current environment is literally the future of American civilisation." And: "I am a genuine revolutionary; they [the Democrats] are the genuine reactionaries. We are going to change the world; they will do anything to stop us."

All this childlike candour and innocent vainglory might be rather winning were it not for his mean streak - the reason, perhaps, why his negative poll ratings were higher than his positive ratings even in November 1994, the time of his greatest triumph. The story of how, immediately after his election to Congress in 1978, he arrived at the hospital bedside of his first wife, Jackie, to discuss divorce proceedings as she lay recovering from a uterine cancer operation has stuck in the public mind. (Commenting on the incident afterwards, he said: "Even if I had been sensitive, it would have been a mess.") Less well known is that Jackie Gingrich went to her local church shortly after the divorce and, declaring "the devil has taken him", complained that he was refusing to pay her and their two children enough money to live on. Meanwhile, he was having an affair with Marianne Ginther, the woman who would become his second wife, though not one to give Newt her unwavering support; in 1990, amid rumours of other affairs, Gingrich mused out loud that his marriage to Marianne had what he called a "53:47" chance of surviving. It is still alive despite a story in September's Vanity Fair in which Anne Manning, a former campaign worker of Newt's, claimed: "We had oral sex. He prefers that modus operandi because then he can say, 'I never slept with her.' " She spoke out, she said, because she was repelled by Gingrich's hypocrisy on family values. Even the Wall Street Journal concurs; although well-disposed toward the Republicans, it has described Gingrich as a man who "preaches piously about family values and high ethical standards and practises neither. Truth, to him, is more a commodity than a bond. Despite the passions he arouses from ideologues on both sides, he really is much more into power than ideas."

Underlying these character questions are deeper misgivings. It is not merely that Gingrich is now in severe trouble with the Congressional Ethics Committee, which has appointed an independent counsel to investigate whether Gingrich violated tax laws to raise political funds. (The Ethics Committee had already slapped Gingrich's wrist for seeming to exploit the Speaker's office in obtaining a $4.5m book contract from Rupert Murdoch's publishing company, HarperCollins - under attack, Gingrich returned the money.) It is the ferocity of what Gingrich is actually marketing that is coming under scrutiny.

The holy grail of the Republican revolutionaries is to balance the federal budget by the year 2002, and the debate between the Republicans and the White House has been over where the cuts should be made. Gingrich has identified certain "burdens" on the tax-payer which he believes should be removed; the problem resides in the definition of the word "burden". Thus Gingrich is proposing cuts in social benefits, health and education while offering relief to those who pay capital gains tax, an idea which has been portrayed by Clinton as a reward from the Republicans to their corporate backers. This has raised questions as to just how serious Gingrich is about balancing the budget, while reinforcing a suspicion that, for all the promises to clean out the government stables, it remains business as usual in Washington.

As doubts about Gingrich's budget-cutting priorities rise, as his insistence becomes ever more shrill that all society's evils are to be blamed on the welfare state, so too does his personal stock fall. The gaffes and the questions raised about his private ethics have only accelerated the decline. And when the budget debate becomes too abstruse for the general public to comprehend, it is Clinton, not Gingrich, who gets the benefit of the doubt.

Poor, petulant Newt is not losing gracefully, but at least he knows who to blame. It's an old enemy, and one the 10th Annual Convention of the National Jewish Coalition heard all about on 28 November, the day after their hero announced that he would not, after all, be running for President. Political cousins of the Christian Coalition, the affluent delegates - men in designer suits, women dripping jewellery - gave Newt a dutiful standing ovation when he walked on to the podium. But the mood was less one of celebration than of dogged solidarity. Indeed, the speaker who introduced Gingrich, a man with a blond wig and a deep winter tan, sounded a plaintive note: "I just wish," he said, "people could get to know Newt personally without the media filter."

Gingrich was grateful for the cue, though he began by going through his normal paces. "We're [the Republicans] committed to the poor," he announced. "But what we're doing to the poor with our present welfare system is destructive and immoral. When you give people money for nothing you weaken them." More restrained than the Christians, the crowd applauded politely, only becoming excited - "Tell 'em, Newt!" - when he at last went on the attack against "the reporters in the room". Two giant video screens showed Gingrich in close-up. He clenched his fists, curled his lip; Preacher Gingrich, lecturing the converted, gave way to Nasty Newt, the wilful adolescent angry that he can't have everything his own way. "The elite media," he told his elite audience, "just can't get it." And none got it less, he said, than the New York Times, with "its Pravda-like role defending reactionary liberalism". What followed, had the audience been more representative of American public opinion, might have evoked a gale of ironic laughter. "We believe, like Lincoln," Newt ringingly declared, "that you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

The percentage of Americans who have been fooled into viewing Gingrich in a negative light stands, according to the latest polls, at a spectacular 60 per cent. The Democrats are making hay, delighted to have an issue around which they can confidently unite, and relishing the opportunity to exact revenge on behalf of Jim Wright, a Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives hounded out of office at Gingrich's instigation because of his allegedly fishy book dealings. As for Gingrich's congressional cohorts, there are those who are already distancing themselves from Newt, fearful that any association with him will damage their chances of re- election. "This ethics proceeding is a serious problem for all of us," said Mark Foley, a Republican elected to the House of Representatives. "Everyone remembers that he attacked the ethics of Speaker Wright and now all of this is just coming home to roost."

Echoes here of Margaret Thatcher, whose MPs stood by her when the going was good but dropped her when they scented electoral defeat. (According to the Washington Post, Bob Dole's presidential campaign advisers have told Dole that if he is to defeat Clinton, he must, above all, "step away from Gingrich.") Gingrich has not yet reached the stage of observing that it is a funny old world, but his liberal tormentors have drawn blood. The Democrats, like the Labour Party when Thatcher was still prime minister, have identified Speaker Gingrich as the propaganda boon they need.

So they are kicking him when he is down, a spectacle not without its pathos. For Gingrich conveys the sense of having a fragile core, of being - to use one of his favourite "bad" words - slightly pathetic. He has about him the air of a little boy straining for love and approval. His eyes have the look of a person forever on guard, frightened, as if awaiting a blow. Which brings us back to his childhood, and the seemingly unfathomable, but classically Freudian, Gingrichism that escaped his lips during an interview last year with David Frost: "If you were four, it was a life- sized Easter Bunny," he said. "I had this latent memory and I kept walking around looking for this 6ft tall Easter Bunny which, of course, given my weight I hardly needed, unless it was made of asparagus or something."

As an adult, he has finally found his Easter Bunny in the Speakership of the House of Representatives. And in Gopac, the Christian Coalition, and the zealous core of the Republican Party, he has found love. Peter Roff, the political director of Gopac, refuses to accept that Gingrich has become a liability. "His one great quality is his vision," Roff insists. "He is a vision politician. Reagan was a vision politician. Kennedy was a vision politician. Churchill was a vision politician. You see, these people and what they share is a vision of a world better than when they appeared on the scene."

Perhaps. But Reagan, and the others, never shot themselves in the foot as Gingrich does. In Gingrich, the marketing genius is forever in conflict with the mercurial jackass. Reagan, Kennedy, and Churchill would never have let it all hang out the way Gingrich does. And they would surely never have said of their childhoods, as Gingrich has: "I think I was very lonely and driven. If you decide in your freshman year in high school that your job is to spend your lifetime trying to change the future of your people, you're probably fairly weird. I think I was pretty weird as a kid." Gingrich's problem is that most people think he is pretty weird as an adult, too. !