“At an age when most young men are focused on playing sports and meeting girls, Newt was fantasizing about saving the world.”
—Steven M. Gillon, The Pact, 2008
Despite Newt Gingrich’s best efforts, it looks like the world is going to have to save itself. A humiliating third-place finish in Saturday’s Louisiana primary should have extinguished the last embers of Gingrich’s wildfire dream of a second-ballot victory at the GOP Convention. Any Newtonian fantasy about stopping Mitt Romney in Tampa requires the former House speaker to continue to accumulate convention delegates. But Gingrich—after winning a combined 9 percent of the vote in Louisiana and the prior Illinois primary—is now in the goose-egg phase of his descent into irrelevance.
How hard it must be for Gingrich at 68 to accept that his active political career is over for good. So Newt and Callista, according to a schedule released by the campaign Sunday, will be holding Wisconsin rallies at the end of the week in advance of the April 3 primary. It undoubtedly will be Potemkin Village Politics—scant crowds, minimal press coverage, but with the purported trappings of a presidential campaign. Since, according to Politico, Gingrich has begun paying off vocal campaign creditors, there should be enough money left for a Wisconsin weekend in presidential primary fantasy camp.
The dream, as Gingrich has told it, began with a 15-year-old boy’s tour of World War I battlefields in 1958. It was at Verdun that Gingrich probably got his first inkling that his historical role would be to rescue America from the fate of Old Europe. What we do know for sure is that the 1994 Capitol takeover ignited Gingrich’s White House dreams. In the House speaker’s office, Gingrich began actively plotting a 2000 campaign. A breakthrough Republican House victory in 1998 would set things up—and that was all but guaranteed, since historical cycles dictate that a president’s party always loses seats in the sixth year of his term. But then came Monica Lewinsky, impeachment fever (which Gingrich was late to develop), a 1998 GOP electoral setback, and Newt’s embarrassing resignation as House speaker one step ahead of a Republican revolt.
So like other world-class historical figures (FDR after polio, Winston Churchill on the back benches of Parliament, Richard Nixon after his last press conference), Gingrich made the best of his time in the wilderness. There were books, speeches, movies, consulting fees for historical wisdom and, of course, a third marriage. But 2012 was to be his year of redemption. Of course, when Gingrich declared his candidacy in May 2011, he was ridiculed in the press for being a failed politician (like Rick Santorum), who was cluttering up the presidential field and preventing serious candidates like Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman from getting a clean shot at Romney. And that was before the Greek cruise with Callista and the resignation of most of his campaign staff.
Gingrich’s long Harold Stassen-esque good-bye from the 2012 campaign has already obscured memories of how stunningly close Newt came to dethroning Mitt as the king of inevitability. Resurrected through compelling debate performances, Gingrich led all the Iowa pre-caucus polls for a month during the late fall. What deflated Gingrich in Iowa was his own puffed-up sense of entitlement as much as the pro-Romney super PAC attack ads.
After all the political obituaries had been filed and forgotten, Gingrich then came roaring out of nowhere to win the South Carolina primary by a double-digit margin. This was a triumph that had less to do with geography or demographics than Gingrich’s persuasive argument that he was the only Republican who could beat Barack Obama in a debate. Interviewing voters at a polling place in Bluffton, near Hilton Head, I repeatedly heard admiring references to Gingrich’s boast that he would allow Obama to bring a teleprompter to the presidential debates. According to the South Carolina exit polls, Gingrich won more than half the votes of Republicans who said that their top priority was defeating Obama.
But after he crashed and burned in the Florida primary, Gingrich learned that there are no third acts in American lives. He tried to be the Southern candidate, but finished a close second behind Rick Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama. Then Newt tried to repeat in Louisiana his one-state-at-a-time strategy that had worked so well in Georgia. Not only did Newt win just 16 percent of the vote, but his wipeout was consistent across all demographic and ideological categories, according to the Louisiana exit polls. What this means is that (unlike Romney with upper-income Republicans and Santorum with evangelicals) there is no identifiable Gingrich constituency in the GOP.
With more than 130 delegates (although all GOP delegate calculations are murky), Gingrich would, in theory, have a role at a contested Republican Convention. Morley Winograd, an architect of the Democratic Party’s arcane delegate rules and a veteran of the contested Kennedy vs. Carter 1980 Convention, suggested in an insightful column in Politico that Santorum and Gingrich should join forces in a last-ditch stop-Romney coalition. With almost all future GOP primaries winner-take-all by congressional district, Winograd theorized that the anti-Mitt candidates could divvy up the districts based on their comparative strength against Romney. There’s only one problem: It is hard to identify a spot on the remaining primary map where Gingrich would be a stronger challenger than Santorum.
So it ends for Gingrich without even a whimper. He will go through the motions of campaigning while visiting zoos (I suspect the Milwaukee County Zoo will merit a pre-primary visit) and dining in plush hotel restaurants with Callista. When the primaries are finally over, Gingrich may even be given a brief prime-time slot at the Tampa Convention if he effusively endorses the nominee and pledges not to gush about beach volleyball as he did at the 1996 GOP Convention.
But the dream that has defined Newt Gingrich’s life for more than a half century ended Saturday without fanfare in the Louisiana bayous. It has been a long journey from Verdun to being done.
Walter Shapiro is a special correspondent for The New Republic. He also writes the “Character Sketch” column for Yahoo News. Follow him on twitter @waltershapiroPD.