Eye of Newt

Lessons I learned the hard way: a personal report

The line is moving faster now, and I get caught up in the celebrity as well, peering at Newt between the stacks. He is sitting in the health, diet, and nutrition section, a wise subliminal cue, I figure, planted by those of his handlers who might already be thinking along the "sexy-is-presidential" vein. His silvery hair looks luminous, especially when framed against the casual blue pin-striped shirt he's wearing.

But it's the same shirt he wore on the book jacket cover. A big mistake, I think, since sexy might be confused with dirty. As in, Doesn't this guy ever change shirts?

The blonde from Buffalo doesn't seem to notice. "I might just have to give him a hug," she tells me, although she decides otherwise, instead just shaking his hand. "I didn't figure you would come all the way up to Buffalo," she tells Newt. "So I decided to come here to see you."

"Ah, one of our long-distance travelers," says Gingrich, sounding overly patrician as he puts on one of his hack political smiles. I notice the same old puffiness in his face, which grows more taut under the forced pressure of his grin. His chin still has a tendency to sink into his neck, particularly when he is signing autographs. It's obvious he still needs to tone this entire area, and I toy with the idea of saying something.

It's my turn now, and he brushes me off with a matter-of-fact "how are you, thanks for coming," making as little eye contact as possible as he signs my book in an illegible scrawl.

But I won't be dismissed that easily; I decide to engage him anyway. "Say Newt, are you going to run for president or what?"

"I don't know yet," he says calmly as I am swept along in the line, unable to say more. But I pull off to the side, watching him greet others, trying to determine whether the guy really has what it takes. Little time is spent with any one person, as he moves in assembly-line fashion, greeting, shaking, signing, greeting, shaking, signing.

Two cute little girls come up to him, their mother pushing them gently forward as they shout out in unison, "Hi, Mr. Gingrich!"

He stops signing and notices them, his smile immediate as he shakes their hands and tells their mom how adorable they look. The children step back, and in that same girlish shout, give him a second chorus of "Goodbye, Mr. Gingrich!" but he doesn't respond, focused instead on the next person, and the next.

I figure Newt is going to have to do better than this. I've seen Primary Colors; Bill Clinton--I mean John Travolta--gives more personal service.

Still standing in line is a man with his hair wrapped in a bushy ponytail that runs the length of his torso. He looks like everyone I ever knew in the '60s, only with a look of anticipation that suggests he's waiting for the second coming of Jerry Garcia. Amazingly, the guy falls all over Newt, has him sign his Rush Limbaugh tie, tells him that he's driven up from Houston just to meet his mentor, who he believes is "the nicest man in politics today." Finally, a true--albeit misinformed--Republican has emerged from the crowd. See Newt's hatchet-man role in the demise of former Speaker Jim Wright as well as his own ethical problems for illustrative purposes.

Yet if Gingrich can capture the burnt-out imagination of some aging hippie, maybe there's hope for him after all. I decide we need to talk, and I approach him again, but as I do, a Secret Service agent asks me for my credentials, then says I will have to step back. He doesn't realize that I have valuable information, information that may prove vital to the speaker of the House in his future bid for the presidency.

Then I think to myself--what am I, nuts? This is Newt Gingrich we're talking about here. Some things are better left unsaid.

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