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.

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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