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The End of a Surprisingly Good Political Career

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Exit Newt Gingrich. Well, not quite yet, officially. On his Facebook page, Gingrich says he will endure "the rigors of campaigning for public office" and "will carry the message of American renewal to every part of this great land, whatever it takes."

Without, however, the assistance of his 16 top campaign aides, some of whom had been with him for years, who resigned en masse last Thursday. They wanted him to spend more time on personal campaigning. He and his wife, Callista, figured they could do a lot of their campaigning and fundraising over the Internet.

This is not the first time that political allies have turned on Gingrich. Most of his fellow House Republican leaders tried to mount a coup to overthrow him in July 1997, in his third year as speaker of the House; he survived, but not for long. Thus, he has twice shown that he can inspire ties of great loyalty -- and can do things that make those ties snap and recoil against him.

Gingrich may keep campaigning -- at the Republican Jewish Coalition on Sunday and at a debate in New Hampshire on Monday night -- but his campaign is effectively over, just a month after he declared he was running.

In 30 days, he careened from one disaster to another, denouncing House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's Medicare plan as "right-wing social engineering" on the Sunday after announcing, later taking a two-week vacation on a cruise in Greece and Turkey.

There is plenty being written about Gingrich's flaws. His personal life has not been entirely admirable, to say the least. He is prone to hyperbole, to making outrageous statements he cannot defend, to shifting positions without informing allies. He spreads himself too thin, writing counterfactual histories of the Civil War and World War II, making documentaries on subjects such as Pope John Paul II's 1979 visit to Poland, setting up one organization after another.

But in the long run, the most interesting things about Newt Gingrich are not his flaws, but his strengths. What enabled this Army brat with no real hometown to become a major political figure who did much to shape American public policy?

It certainly was not connections to any particular political group. Gingrich graduated from good universities, but he is essentially an autodidact, a self-educated loner. He has long been credited with having new ideas, but looking back on his nearly 40-year political career -- he first ran for Congress in Georgia in 1974 -- I think his keenest insights were not about public policy, but about political possibilities.

He foresaw that Republicans could win congressional races in the small-town South and worked hard to prove it, losing first in the Watergate year and then in 1976, when Jimmy Carter swept Georgia, before he beat a conservative Democrat in 1978.

I remember that starting in 1984, he was predicting that Republicans could win a majority in the House. He was wrong then, but he was right in 1994 and he was right about the reasons all along. He saw that Republicans would win most Southern seats and that talented young Democrats elected in the Vietnam/Watergate years would in time retire or be defeated.

He coached politically clueless Republican candidates with the high tech of the day -- hours of Newt on audiotape -- and bucked the Bush 41 White House and House Republican leader in opposing a tax increase in 1990.

As speaker, Gingrich had more policy successes than his current detractors recall. He held federal spending essentially static for a year, setting the budget on a path to surpluses; passed a landmark welfare reform act; and set in motion a Medicare reform commission that recommended premium support, the main feature of Ryan's proposal.

Through all this, Gingrich always was searching for ideas that commanded 70 percent support. He understood that dovish Democrats' disdain for American exceptionalism was a grave political liability and sought to exploit it. But after his first moments in the spotlight as speaker, he turned off voters. I think he reminded them of the high-school nerd/egghead whom all the other kids disliked.

Gingrich turns 68 next week; this was obviously the last year he could run for president. His chances were never great and now seem nonexistent. But we shouldn't forget what this man, with his unusual gifts and despite glaring flaws, managed to accomplish against great odds.

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