Jules Witcover: Goodbye, Gingrich

The silence of the other shoe dropping pretty much describes the clamor that greeted the departure of Newt Gingrichfrom his overblown, self-centered fight for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

The man who vowed he would go all the way to the convention slinked away at a sparsely attended farewell news conference, with yet another offering of the ersatz erudition for which he is infamous, and with an ungracious quasi-endorsement of the man who whipped him, Mitt Romney.


The coming election, Mr. Gingrich noted, "is not a choice between Mitt Romney and Ronald Reagan. This is a choice between Mitt Romney and the most radical, leftist president in American history." Thus did the self-proclaimed historian in one swoop diminish Mr. Romney and slander Barack Obama in his customary surrender to verbal excess.

He went on to describe his roller-coaster ride to utter defeat as "amazing and astonishing." It was amazing in its brief comeback and astonishing in its audacity, given Mr. Gingrich's record of overstating and exaggerating his contribution to the national dialogue.


In the Gospel according to Newt, everything he offered was "fundamentally" or "extraordinarily" so. In reaching oratorically for the stars, he only managed to take us to the absurd and irrelevant notion of an American colony on the moon when so much remains undone here on Planet Earth.

As so often in other Gingrich endeavors and pipe dreams, his reach exceeded his grasp. Merely getting to the Republican convention in Tampa as a candidate still standing, where he obviously hoped to mesmerize the faithful with the brilliance that dazzles in his own eyes, proved to be a step too far.

This man who presents himself as part H.G. Wells and part Elmer Gantry has demonstrated in all this the skills of a political snake-oil salesman who, after being driven from the House speakership, turned his talents to building a lucrative, ultraconservative think-tank enterprise.

Mr. Gingrich may have thought in doing so he would re-emerge as conservatism's automatically identified savior. He didn't adequately take into account the simultaneous emergence of the tea party movement of other conservative self-starters, determined to break from the grip of Republican establishment figures.

In their single-minded quest not only to get rid of Mr. Obama but also to take over the party, they regarded Mr. Gingrich's personal baggage as too much to tote. His sometimes bombastic, sometimes contemptuous campaign style was a reminder of his erratic, self-centered past.

Had the 2012 pre-convention fight for the GOP nomination been a two-man Romney-Gingrich battle, he might have overcome his handicaps. But with other hopefuls, from Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann to Rick Perry and Rick Santorum, all vying for a slice of the anti-Romney vote, Mr. Gingrich became just another also-ran.

Moreover, his slashing personal assault on Mr. Romney -- flat-out calling him a liar preaching "phoney baloney" -- almost certainly ruled out any role for him in a possible Romney administration. It even casts doubt on whether he will be given a chance to speak at the convention. Old Republican hands remember the havoc sowed at the party's 1992 convention by another also-ran, Pat Buchanan, with his speech casting the campaign destructively in terms of a religious and cultural war.

With the bland and pliant Mr. Romney, though, one never knows. He reacted to Mr. Gingrich's withdrawal by saying he "has brought creativity and intellectual vitality to American political life" and had "demonstrated both eloquence and fearlessness in advancing conservative ideas."


With Mr. Romney talking as though he is still working to close the deal with doubting party conservatives, it would be no huge surprise to see Mr. Gingrich up there pontificating his gospel of grandiosity to the GOP multitudes in Tampa this summer.

Giving a primary foe the convention microphone is a gamble, however. At the 1980 Democratic convention in New York, defeated Ted Kennedy starkly overshadowed nominee Jimmy Carter with his stirring prediction that "the [liberal] dream shall never die," presaging the split that contributed to Mr. Carter's loss that fall to Ronald Reagan.

In any event, whatever Mr. Gingrich's future role may be, he's certain to follow the Dylan Thomas admonition not to go gently into that good night.

Jules Witcover is a longtime former writer for the Baltimore Sun. His latest book is Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at