I remember Gingrich predicting that in the 1984 cycle Republicans would win a majority in the House of Representatives. Every political insider thought that was ridiculous, and it illustrates Gingrich's tendency toward overoptimism. But while he was wrong on the timing, he was right on the reasons why the Republicans could and would end the Democrats' decades of control. He saw that the South was moving Republican as elderly incumbents retired and that smart young Democrats elected in Vietnam and Watergate years would be replaced by Republicans. That finally happened in 1994, and Gingrich became speaker of the House.
His record there was mixed. As I wrote in the 1998 Almanac of American Politics, "He had more success as an inside-the-House legislative leader than as an outside-the-House shaper of public opinion." Congress passed welfare reform and held spending level for a year, which led to a balanced budget. Gingrich and Bill Clinton were negotiating Medicare and Social Security reforms until distracted in different ways by impeachment.
But many Republicans felt that Gingrich was continually outnegotiated by Clinton, who as Gingrich told me at the time, "never stops learning." Other Republican leaders nearly ousted him in an unprecedented coup in 1997, and few colleagues are supporting him for president now.
As for the public, Gingrich became widely unpopular due, as I wrote then, to "a cocksureness, a professorial abstractness about policy, a more than occasional petulance and high self regard."
He also showed a tin ear for proprieties, divorcing two wives to marry other women and signing a seven-figure book contract as speaker (later dropped), just as he signed up for seven figures from Freddie Mac after leaving office.
Asked a year ago whether he was running, Gingrich said, "Why wouldn't I?" When his campaign staff resigned en masse, he persevered. Now we'll see if voters entrust this autodidact with a position for which few of his colleagues think he is fitted.
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