Eye of Newt

Lessons I learned the hard way: a personal report

Awaiting the arrival of Newt Gingrich at his Barnes & Noble book-signing in North Dallas, I figure the place should be silly with conservative Republicans: well-heeled women carrying laminated copies of the Contract with America in their Prada handbags; right-wing Christians who find it morally reprehensible that the president of the United States is still dating; flat-taxing Libertarians who know somebody who knows somebody who once attended a Republic of Texas barbecue in Arlington that raised money for Richard McLaren's legal defense fund.

But standing in line for the speaker's meet-and-greet last Wednesday are the middle-aged, the slightly worn, the casually clad--most of whom are anxious to get out of the hot, gusty wind and back to work. Many seem remarkably indifferent about meeting someone of importance, while others are flat-out excited, chatting up strangers and sharing their opinions as if they were getting paid by the word. Certainly, if Newt Gingrich is about to make a run for the presidency, writing a "get to know me" book is one way to retool his tattered image. And Gingrich, stopping in Dallas on a 16-city tour, must believe he will be playing to his kind of people--the progeny of Ronald Reagan, limited government, and Cowboy capitalism.

He is scheduled to arrive at noon, signing copies of his new book, Lessons Learned the Hard Way: A Personal Report, but I get here 30 minutes early, standing in line next to a short-haired software salesman who looks like a Gingrich groupie. "No," he tells me, "I'm really a moderate. My father is a Gingrich fan, and I just thought an autographed copy of his book would make a great Father's Day present."

"So you wouldn't support him for president?"
"I'd rather he not run. We need more of a Clinton-like salesman. A face man like George W."

A blonde from Buffalo, New York, wearing leopard-skin shoes voices the same "it's not the person, it's the persona" view of the presidency. "Gingrich has lost some weight," she says, "and if I was voting from that standpoint alone, I'd have to say yes, that's a big plus."

Her big-haired, denim-clad Texas cousin quickly points out: "Oh, she's always going after looks. I'd vote for George Jr. because he is a native Texan. And people in the South are nicer because the sun shines much more here."

"But Newt Gingrich is from Georgia," I tell her.
"Well, never mind then."
Corpulent bookstore clerks empowered with walkie-talkies and visions of protecting national security contain our line. One tries to calm the fears of a book buyer who seems overly impatient about standing outside. "They will only allow so many people to come inside the building," he tells her. "The guard dogs went through earlier, sniffing for bombs. You're in the safest place in Dallas right now."

"They took away my camera," says a jolly, olive-skinned man with a Middle Eastern accent. "That's why I came. To get my picture taken with Mr. Gingrich and send it to my father in Iran."

"So you like his politics, then?"
"No, not really, but I had my picture taken with Al Gore last year, and I sent it to my father so he can say, 'Look, my son knows the second most powerful man in America.' I want my picture with Gingrich so my father can say I also know the third most powerful man in America."

This engineering-looking guy with a pocket protector crammed into his white shirt chimes in. "I was here for Leonard Nimoy's book-signing, and there were 1,000 people lined up to see him. And Newt only gets a couple of hundred. What does that tell you about America?" he asks.

"That Leonard Nimoy's better-looking than Newt Gingrich?" I offer.
No answer. It's 12:15 p.m., Newt is running late, and the crowd is growing more restless as a light rain begins to fall. A fleshy-faced teenager, clearly the youngest person in line, looks fed-up. "This is so typical of Republicans," he says. "Early with the promises, late with the arrivals."

The crowd around him is noticeably wowed by someone who is actually waxing political.

"You sound like a Democrat," I say. "What are you doing here?"
"I am a Democrat. I just wanted my photo taken with the third most powerful man in America."

He also sounds like an Iranian.
Finally, the line begins to move as those in the front enter the bookstore through a side door. As we walk inside, working our way through the stacks of books and toward Newt, the blonde from Buffalo turns to me. "You know, I am a jilted woman," she confesses. "My ex-fiance is a staunch Republican, and he broke off our engagement because I refused to judge Bill Clinton. I just won't judge him."

She was telling me more than I wanted to hear.
"And I won't go along with everything Rush Limbaugh says either."
"What'd I tell ya about looks?" says her Texas cousin.

"I am a Republican election judge," continues the blonde from Buffalo. "But I like Bill Clinton. He is a very attractive man."

Suddenly, it hits me. Clinton's high approval ratings just might be driven by repressed Republican women who were willing to forgive his lusty behavior because they somehow find him...sexy. If Gingrich was really interested in running for president, this might be just the kind of information he'd find useful. Maybe I should say something.

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