Washington. -- My dinner partner was Heritage Foundation president Ed Feulner. Predictably, in a room containing four U.S. senators, the speaker of the House and Jack Kemp, talk turned to presidential politics.
"Who do you like?" asked Mr. Feulner.
"Who I like and who I think might win are two different questions," I said. "But I like Newt Gingrich -- and I think he'll run this time."
"I'll bet you $5 he doesn't," said Mr. Feulner conservatively.
"Make it $50," I replied more liberally. We shook hands.
A few minutes later, Mr. Gingrich was introduced. He launched into an extemporaneous tribute to Mr. Kemp and the ideas both had forged that propelled Mr. Gingrich to the speaker's chair. He seemed to end his remarks abruptly as he choked up with emotion. The applause was thunderous.
I looked at Mr. Feulner, who seemed deeply impressed. "I withdraw the bet," he said.
A few weeks ago, Mr. Gingrich appeared on CNN's "Talk Back Live." A young man in the audience said that prior to seeing the speaker, he had thought of him as a dangerous man. Now that he had listened to him talk "unfiltered by the media," he had changed his mind and likes him.
This is the effect ideas can have on people, especially when they are genuinely held and not the product of focus groups. Those appeal more to emotion than to intellect and seek to manipulate feelings, not inspire profound thought.
True, Mr. Gingrich stumbles occasionally. Who doesn't? He acknowledges he was mistaken when he said the United States might recognize Taiwan if China doesn't shape up on human rights. "I'm still learning," he notes, "and I don't mind saying that for the record."
The reason Mr. Gingrich inspires is that the listener believes he means what he says, in contrast to the current White House occupant and some who would replace him.
In reviewing Norman Rose's new book about Winston Churchill, Henry Kissinger makes some points about the late British prime minister that could also be made about Mr. Gingrich (without equating the two in stature -- not yet, anyway).
"Our age," writes Mr. Kissinger in the New York Times, "is embarrassed by such inward assurance" and, therefore, "is tempted to deconstruct the heroic element of policy." He makes a distinction between the heroes of the past and the superstars of today: "Superstars strive for approbation; heroes walk alone. Superstars crave consensus; heroes define themselves by the judgment of a future they see it as their task to bring about. Superstars seek success in a technique for eliciting support; heroes pursue success as the outgrowth of inner values."
A real leader does not seek to make his followers comfortable in wrong beliefs but tries to convert them to true beliefs that can be validated objectively. A real leader can and should occasionally appeal to emotion but does not rely on it. A real leader believes emotional satisfaction derives from proper intellectual stimulation.
Mr. Kissinger quotes Jean Monnet, author of European unity, who said that people of great achievement are ambitious. But the key question, said Monnet, is whether they are ambitious to be or ambitious to do.
In this regard, I think, Mr. Gingrich is like Churchill. He is ambitious to do. Whether he will run for president in 1996 probably has not yet been settled in his own mind; he says he has until December to file in the New Hampshire primary. And while he admittedly has much to learn, that which he has already learned is enough to electrify a room of seasoned political observers. Imagine the future of such ideas on a nation.
Cal Thomas is a syndicated columnist.