I don't want to say Matt Bai got sold a bill goods for his NYT Magazine cover story on Newt Gingrich--especially since I myself bought the same bill of goods not so long ago--but I don't think Newt is "back." Or at least he's not "back" any more than he was "back" a couple years ago. The Congressmen taking advice from Newt today and the Republican operatives touting him as a potential presidential candidate in 2012 are the same Congressmen who were taking advice from him in 2006 and the same operatives who were touting him as a potential presidential candidate in 2008. If the science of radical life extension makes significant progress, one thing we can all look forward to in the future is hearing Grover Norquist's disquisition on why Newt is a serious presidential contender for 2076. In other words, Newt isn't back, because he never really went away.
Newt owes some of his staying power to his conservative fans and admirers like Norquist, but I think the biggest contributors to Newt's longevity in the spotlight are political reporters. Let's face it: Newt makes for great copy. Unlike a lot of conservatives, who hate talking to (presumably liberal) journalists, Newt will talk to you. And talk. And talk. And talk. Just plop a tape recorder down in front of him, and you've got a story. I like to think the media's relationship with Newt as being the conservative version of its relationship with Al Sharpton. Just as the national media used to view Sharpton, as Ta-Nehisi Coates once wrote, as a "one-stop shop" for "all things black" (even though Sharpton's support among African-Americans was hardly overwhelming), Newt has found his greatest constituency among journalists who turn to him as a one-stop shop for all things conservative.
The way Newt leverages that reliance into national magazine cover stories is by constantly intimating that he's on the verge of tossing his hat back into the ring with a presidential run. Which is what he did when I talked to him for my piece in 2006 and what he did with Bai for his piece yesterday (and what he does with seemingly every reporter he comes in to contact with). But here's a prediction: It'll never happen; to borrow a line Marion Barry once used about Jesse Jackson, Newt don't wanna run nothing but his mouth. That's because the moment Newt actually runs for office (and inevitably loses), the jig is up. (Which is sort of what happened to Sharpton after his disastrous 2004 run, although Obama's election really put the nail in the coffin of his days as black America's spokesperson.) The way Newt stays in the spotlight is by not every fully entering into it. His role in American political life is to stand on the sidelines, offering a constant stream of ideas and critiques, so that he never really has to be accountable for any of them; as Bai nicely shows in his piece, oftentimes Newt offers conflicting advice, almost as if to guarantee that he's never definitively proven wrong. After all, the one time Newt was accountable for his ideas--when he was Speaker of the House and the most important Republican in America--it didn't turn out so well for him.
In his Times Magazine article, Bai compares Newt's current situation to Richard Nixon's in the 1960s:
In 1962, two years past a narrow presidential defeat, Richard Nixon got walloped in a race for California governor, went downstairs to the ballroom at the Beverly Hilton and put his career out of its misery. (“You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”) Nixon then faded into the background and watched from a distance while Barry Goldwater borrowed the keys to the party and crashed it headlong into a wall, leaving twisted wreckage and no one with the stature to fix it. Suddenly Republicans found themselves in need of a serious mind, even one with serious flaws. By 1969, Nixon, who fulfilled no one’s concept of glamorous, was unpacking boxes in the Oval Office.Newt Gingrich had to wait a little longer for his rehabilitation, but there are parallels between Nixon’s journey and his.
It's an interesting analogy, but I don't think it's apt. As Newt told me for my profile of him a couple years, explaining why he didn't feel like he needed to be president: "Nixon had this remarkably effective, deeply intense will to power. Reagan and I have a will to ideas."
Newt's not exactly known for his self-awareness. (Calling for the impeachment of a president over an adultery scandal at the same time you yourself are conducting an extramarital affair has to be one of the least self-aware acts in political history.) But, in this instance, I think Newt offers up a correct self-assessment. He's about as un-Nixonian as a politician can get, simply because, in the end, he doesn't crave power. He just craves attention. Which means that, unlike Nixon in the 60s, Newt will always be available to kick around.
Jason Zengerle is a senior editor at The New Republic.