Newt Gingrich: He's No Mario Cuomo

Newt Gingrich: He's no Mario Cuomo.

Times political writer Matt Bai's "Political Memo" column Wednesday was pretty hostile to the battle-scared Republican leader considering a 2012 run for president: "Gingrich's Run Reflects His Sense of History." Bai led off by asking "Whatever can Newt Gingrich be thinking?" given that he "has never been elected to anything outside his old Congressional district in Georgia." (And, by the way, rose to Speaker of the House.)

But back on April 10 Bai confessed to being awestruck about sitting across a desk from the liberal lion, former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo: "...there is something awesome - in the literal sense - about sitting across a desk from Mario Cuomo." Judging from the opening lines, Bai was not nearly as impressed with the conservative Newt.

Whatever can Newt Gingrich be thinking?

That's the question a lot of political handicappers are asking now that Newt, as he is universally known in Washington, has decided to enter the 2012 campaign, with an announcement expected on Wednesday. Until recently, most of my colleagues assumed that the former speaker of the House, who flirted with running four years ago, was merely doing the same thing now, just to stay in the news.

I mean, let's be unsparing about this: Mr. Gingrich has never been elected to anything outside his old Congressional district in Georgia. (The last guy to be elected president without having won statewide or national office was Dwight D. Eisenhower, and he had a few things going for him, like having saved the world.) Newt will turn 68 next month, which could make him a hard sell for a younger generation of voters who remember him as the guy who helped impeach Bill Clinton. And Mr. Gingrich, a bit of a rogue in his personal life, has never been a favorite of his party's powerful social conservatives, who tend to think of scandalous affairs as the purview of Democrats, and maybe Rudy Giuliani.

And yet, having spent a fair amount of time with Mr. Gingrich for an article I wrote for The New York Times Magazine two years ago, I never had much doubt that he was serious this time around. The thing you have to understand about Newt is that he is, by training and temperament, an avid historian, and he is as true a believer as you will ever find in the concept of destiny.

That March 1, 2009 magazine profile of Gingrich (where he also called Obama "a gifted orator") was fairly hostile, containing the same cracks as the new piece, comparing Gingrich to Nixon and mocking him for having never been elected to any seat outside his House district. It also laid on the insults:

Politically, he was badly outflanked by a masterful and more pragmatic Bill Clinton; on a personal level, he was undone by petulance and hypocrisy, whining about his status on Air Force One after a state funeral and carrying on an extramarital affair while impeaching the president for lying about sexual transgressions. He became, in the public mind, a mop-haired caricature, the man depicted on the front page of The Daily News as a crying infant....The point of this story isn't that Gingrich is some kind of mind-controlling charlatan - although if you talk long enough to the small cadre of loyalists who have been with him for the better part of 30 years, you might start to wonder.