Out of the limelight for the first time in two decades, former House speaker Newt Gingrich has been quietly fattening his personal bank account and is on target to make at least $3 million in lecture fees alone this year while laying the groundwork to maintain his influence in national politics.
Gingrich last night made his first appearance in Washington in months as he was feted by hundreds of lobbyists, politicos and other supporters at a dinner that organizers said will raise close to $1 million for his political action committee and his favorite charity, the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation.
"Together we accomplished a lot," Gingrich, looking tan and thinner, told the gathering. "It was a decisive transition in power," he said, describing the Republican takeover of the House he spent 16 years working to achieve.
Since resigning under pressure last year, Gingrich has kept an unusually low profile, but his fund-raising, busy speechmaking and effort to maintain a skeletal campaign organization suggest Gingrich intends to remain very much engaged in politics, and possibly run for office again after the 2000 elections.
"Gingrich is one of the most remarkable and resourceful politicians of the post-World War II era and anyone who prematurely writes his obit is making a big mistake," said Ralph Reed, former director of the Christian Coalition and now an Atlanta-based political consultant. "He has a real opportunity to do what he couldn't do for a few years, make money, build contacts, recast his image and position himself for a potential comeback."
Last night, Gingrich stayed in character, proposing a "strategy of freedom" that would include reducing individual total tax burdens -- federal, state, and local -- from roughly 38 percent of income now to 25 percent; insisting on the right of individuals to invest a portion of Social Security taxes; breaking past reluctance to fully extend all rights and freedoms to minorities, and providing citizens full access to all information about themselves, from illnesses to their credit status.
For Gingrich, life in the political wilderness has brought about a distinct change in perspective. A decade ago, while in the Republican minority in the House, he saw Washington as a sea of corrupt venality, declaring: "In this cold and ruthless city, the center of hypocrisy is Capitol Hill." Gingrich repeatedly accused Democratic adversaries of capitalizing on power and position for personal profit, and drove then-Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) out of office.
Now the power and prominence acquired in this "cold and ruthless city" has become a ticket to wealth. Unrestrained by congressional ethics rules and relatively protected from the prying eyes of the media, Gingrich has turned himself into a one-man conglomerate, and he is reveling in a sea of green, according to his associates.
According to sources, Gingrich has already lined up or given 38 speeches at an average of $50,000 plus expenses, well on his way to surpassing his goal of 60 speeches in 1999. Among the groups he has addressed are the Cadillac Dealers Association in Pebble Beach, Calif., and the Internet Commerce Expo in Boston, according to sources.
Gingrich also has accepted seats on the board of the merger and acquisition firm Forstmann Little & Co. and on the advisory board of Hollinger International, a media conglomerate run by Conrad Black. He is setting up consulting arrangements with such firms as PriceWaterhouseCooper and Fleishman-Hillard Inc.
In addition, Gingrich and his key advisers, including Joe Gaylord, are exploring establishing a company through which Gingrich would provide corporations advice based on the principles he developed in his 16-year struggle to engineer the Republican takeover of the House. One possibility Gingrich is considering is to set up a subsidiary at the Baker & Hostetler law firm.
"He is making a ton of money and he loves it. He is like a little boy who has been allowed to go out and play for the first time in his life," one associate said. "He may have a political future, and therefore he may only have two to four years to make money. He is really focused for the short term."
Gingrich, indeed, has been preoccupied lately with the question of whether to buy a Cadillac and how to equip it, according to one associate.
Even as he ensures his financial security, Gingrich is keeping his hand in politics. Last night, the one-time superstar of GOP fund-raising returned to the fray with a gala at the Capital Hilton. Gingrich's departure from power clearly dampened the enthusiasm of some fund-raisers he approached for help. One Washington lobbyist Gingrich telephoned twice to ask for help said he politely declined. "I am involved in here-and-now events, if I can put it that way," the lobbyist said.
But the event was boosted by an array of House Republican leaders and lobbyists whose stature as Washington power brokers grew geometrically when the Republican majority took over the House: former representatives Vin Weber and Robert S. Walker, former GOP White House aide Nicholas Calio and former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour.
These lobbyists helped sell tickets at a rate impressive for a politician out of office. For $1,000 apiece, some 600 Gingrich friends watched a predinner video of Jay Leno roasting the man whose rotund figure and striking thatch of gray hair became instantly recognizable, and a postdinner video narrated by Charlton Heston that described the personal side of Gingrich.
The Gingrich political action committee, Friends of Newt Gingrich (FONG), will be a vehicle to promote his ideas.
Meanwhile, Gingrich is planning to keep a relatively low profile through the 2000 elections, although associates said he is virtually certain to work with the campaign of Texas Gov. George W. Bush and to try to weaken the candidacy of Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, whose sharp criticism of the Republican congressional leadership angered the ex-speaker.
Gingrich's associates are split in their assessment of whether he will be able to resist the urge to go after elective office again, with the presidency or the governorship of Georgia mentioned most often.
Asked last night if he will seek office again, Gingrich smiled as he replied, "I don't know. . . . I'm just the age Ronald Reagan was when he first ran for governor."
Staff researcher Ben White contributed to this report. Since resigning as House speaker and a Republican congressman from Georgia, Newt Gingrich has rarely made public appearances here. Enjoying a fund-raising "Salute to Newt" at the Capital Hilton, former speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) laughs at the gibes in a predinner tape made by Jay Leno.