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HOW HE SEES IT Newt anew -- tanned, rested and ready



Published: Tue, July 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



By MICHAEL KINSLEY

LOS ANGELES TIMES

Ten years ago, when he was speaker of the House of Representatives and riding high, Newt Gingrich wrote a book called "To Renew America," in which he predicted that in "just a decade or so" people would have a "diagnostic chair" in their homes that would save them the trouble of going to the doctor.

That doesn't seem to have happened. But then, even professional pundits can sometimes be wrong in predicting the future.

For example, I thought that when he slunk out of Congress in 1998, we had heard the last of Newt Gingrich. And he did lie low for a while.

But now he's back, big time. Just Google him up. He's the man to go to for a quote about anything relating to the Republican Party or the universe generally. He is hitting the talk shows a lot and graduating from the role of guest interviewee to that of a full-fledged know-it-all sitting at the big round table with chairs that tilt back.

Gingrich recently co-chaired a congressionally sponsored commission on the future of the United Nations -- could there be a more numbingly high-minded topic? -- along with former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, a man so respectable that he makes a good living at it.

And then there's Gingrich's enormously publicized mutual embrace (intellectual, not physical) with Hillary Clinton. They agree about something to do with healthcare, which would seem more amazing if the subtext weren't so obvious: He helps her to seem moderate; she helps him to seem legitimate.

What does it take in Washington, D.C., to be so thoroughly discredited that nobody cares what you think? Gingrich is far from the worst miscreant ever to be rehabilitated. By the time he died, even Richard Nixon was regarded as a major foreign policy guru. Bill Bennett exposed himself as a hypocrite with his gambling addiction, but that didn't necessarily disqualify his insights about education. No one seeks advice on political strategy from Jimmy Carter, but his moral authority grows and grows.

Discredited

But Newt! He might hold the record for being discredited in so many ways. He has failed as a prognosticator. (Pick almost anything he has said about the economy, for example.) He has failed as a strategist. (In 1994, he was King of the World. Time's Man of the Year. His revolution had succeeded. The presidency was his for the asking. By 1998 it was all gone, gone, gone, primarily because of his own ineptitude and overreaching.) His moral authority is, or ought to be, zilch. (He led the impeachment campaign against President Clinton while conducting an extramarital affair of his own with a congressional aide.) He has been out of office for years. Who is Newt Gingrich to lend luster to Hillary Clinton?

Answer: He's a celebrity. In the famous definition of that term, he's famous for being famous. In our celebrity culture, it doesn't matter if you're a famous war hero or a famous ax murderer. What matters is the size of your fame, not its cause.

And if you invest it wisely, your fame can grow and support you long after its cause has been forgotten.

Hollywood is thought to be the center of empty celebrity. But actually, of this country's three capitals (Washington, D.C., for political power, Wall Street for money and Hollywood for culture), Hollywood is probably the most rigorous enforcer of fame's limits. And Wall Street is second. A movie star who stops selling tickets actually can sink into television, into commercials and ultimately into genuine obscurity. A top businessperson can lose his or her job if the numbers turn south (although Wall Street losers get tens of millions of dollars as a going-away present).

Has-beens

Washington, by contrast, is littered with has-beens, many of whom are richer, happier and maybe even more influential than when they were in elected jobs. More influential? Sure, if they're on TV a lot like Newt. Congressmen come running when CNN calls. CNN does not come running when one of 435 members of Congress calls.

Gingrich is not more influential than when he bestrode Congress, but I bet he is having more fun. He was always more interested in mouthing off than in following through. That is not a huge moral failing (or at least I hope not, for personal reasons). But does the world need more full-time mouthers-off? I know I don't. There's enough competition already.

Newt has always had his cuddly-little-piglet side, which he is nurturing. But even more helpful has been his use of the notorious "even" technique. It's very simple. You just endorse, embrace or otherwise attach yourself to something or someone representing everything, or as close to everything as possible, you have always stood against. Try it yourself. Suddenly, you are interesting. You're thoughtful. You're a statesman.

As part of this transformation, you become more moderate and more tolerant generally. And you get a new name. You're not just Newt Gingrich anymore. You're a new, improved version known as "Even Newt Gingrich."

This fellow Even Newt does things the old, unimproved Newt would never do, such as share a news conference with Hillary Clinton. He can criticize House Majority Leader Tom DeLay for behaving more or less the way Gingrich himself did in his weeks of absolute power.

X Kinsley is the Editorial and Opinion editor of the Times.




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