Having known Newt since I was 19, serving as a youthful debate advisor in 1980, a lawyer in recount elections, his campaign chairman from 1992 until he resigned from office and a client of his consulting group in his early years in business, I cover virtually every aspect of his adult life. I've known his daughters, his wives and his closest friends for nearly 32 years.
To put it bluntly, the Newt I knew so very well in his prior life as an elected official and political operator hardly resembles the man I know now.
Then he was extremely ambitious (I thought he was crazy when he told me in 1980 that he would someday be speaker of the House) and let virtually nothing stand in his way. He often was so trigger-happy with his attacks that he fired without thinking, rarely worrying about the collateral damage he left behind. He could engage in really heated arguments, and the way most of us survived was to fight right back.
And back then, Newt could never relax. I would try to get him to laugh, but quite frankly he didn't want to. I knew he loved football, having played it in high school, but it was hard for any of his inner-circle of friends to get him to consistently join the average Joe and get into supporting a team, save New Year's, when he would kick back with friends and watch games -- but talk politics.
He was also somewhat secretive. I think he felt that, even with those he basically loved and who loved him, he could never truly drop his guard. I can't tell you how many then-young members of Congress on the GOP side would pull me aside and ask me what Newt really thought of them. I had a standard answer: "He doesn't think of you. Just keep on doing your best, and don't pay too much attention when he gets mad." It worked, because many of those who asked me that question are now governor, senators or very successful in other occupations.
The one thing that never bothered me personally was Newt's so-called "baggage." Not because I approved of some self-confessed improper actions, but because I knew the real story behind the various untrue tales related to both marriages. It's not my place to spill the beans on the inner dynamics of Newt's prior marriages, particularly with regard to wife No. 2, whom I knew throughout that marriage. I think it is fair to say that both parties shared equal blame, both morally and otherwise, for the demise of the union.
Yes, by the early 2000s, Newt was not the best of company. But it was then that he began to change. He converted to the Catholic Church, and for the first time was passionate about God and his spiritual life. His marriage to Callista brought him peace and a settled-down lifestyle that I had never seen in the many decades I had known him. Then came the grandchildren. Newt became an integral part of their lives, perhaps more so than in that of his girls when they were growing up. His eyes light up around them, and he never hesitates to let them be a part of whatever he is doing.
The new Newt Gingrich rarely loses his temper, suffers fools easily, and cares about the more human and personal side of his longtime friends. He is genuinely kind.
And there is one more characteristic that Newt actually had even as speaker that he retains today. Despite his reputation as "the smartest guy in the room," he bucks the typical GOP desire to use pomp, title or access in a manner to make others feel small. From the day I met him until the day I write this column, he has always asked people to call him not Congressman or Mr. Speaker, but just "Newt." It may be that the Newt Gingrich is not only more likeable but more electable. But if he's president, we will likely have to get used to calling him President Newt. That's as far as he will go!
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