In the crowded race for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney may be the tortoise, but Newt Gingrich is the newt. And newts are highly adaptive salamanders that regenerate limbs when wounded and emit poison when challenged.
Conventional — and up-to-the-minute contemporary — wisdom pegs Gingrich as the ascendant favorite, knocking other candidates off their posts and platforms like an Angry Bird.
A recent New Hampshire Journal poll — conducted by Magellan Strategies — of people likely to vote in the state's Jan. 10 Republican primary puts Romney and Gingrich statistically neck-and-neck.
So if Gingrich is a front-running candidate, the question arises: What do we know about Newt? The tougher question, however, may be: What do we not know?
After all, the 68-year-old former U.S. representative from Georgia has been a recurring character on the American political stage since 1974. Since his resignation from Congress in 1999, Gingrich has remained in the public eye as a political consultant and TV pundit. He has written nearly two dozen books. And for decades he has been the subject of scrutiny by countless magazines, newspapers, radio shows and websites. Story after story about his past, present and future continue to appear.
Now that his candidacy for president is taking flight, some people are saying that — in the grand old Grand Old Party tradition of picking the nominee who has been waiting around the longest — it just may be Newt's turn.
In any case, here are five things you still may not know about Newt:
1. He did not come into this world as Newt Gingrich. Born Newton Leroy McPherson in Harrisburg, Pa., in 1943, Newt was eventually adopted by his stepfather and took the last name of Gingrich. Newt met his first wife, Jackie, when he was a 16-year-old high school student in Columbus, Ga. Jackie was his 23-year-old math teacher. They married when Gingrich was a freshman at Emory University in Atlanta, according to a 1985 profile in The Washington Post by Lois Romano. Newt "really believed when he was a junior in high school that he was destined to save western civilization," a friend told Romano.
2. He is an animal lover. As a child, "Newtie," as his mother called him, shared a bedroom with his grandmother and kept jars of snakes on his bedside table that scared the wits out of her, according to a 1994 story by Katharine Q. Seelye in The New York Times. He once painted light stripes on a dark leather jacket so he could resemble a zebra. And in the early 1990s he donated $15,000 to the Atlanta Zoo for the purchase of two Komodo dragons.
3. He once said that Congress is a bunch of liars. "There are two games in this country," West Georgia College history professor Newt Gingrich told Washington Post reporter David Broder in 1974. "One is played by the 5,000 insiders in Washington who write the laws and tell the lies, and the other by the rest of us, who pay the price."
4. He was not the main force behind the impeachment of President Bill Clinton. By the time that the House voted to impeach Clinton in late 1998 — due to perjury charges stemming from his sexual involvement with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — Gingrich had lost his mojo as speaker. His party had dropped seats in the midterms and he had been portrayed by Newsweek magazine as "The Gingrich Who Stole Christmas." In the winter of 1995-1996, he had engineered two shutdowns of the federal government. Throughout the impeachment process, it turned out, Gingrich himself was having an affair with House staffer Callista Bisek — more than 20 years his junior. In 2000, she became his third wife. The real primum mobile of the proceedings was Texas Rep. Tom DeLay. "If Newt had still been speaker, the House may have settled for censuring Clinton and not pressed ahead on impeachment — given there was no realistic prospect of conviction in the Senate," says NPR Senior Washington Editor Ron Elving. "But DeLay and others, believing they could win over the country and the Senate — and just wanting to do it because they could — pressed the issue once Gingrich was out of the way."
5. He is not considered a conservative — by all conservatives. "Gingrich has never been a conservative," according to an appraisal in May 2011 by The American Conservative magazine. "Gingrich has rarely, if ever, been for smaller government. He simply believes Republicans can preside over big government more effectively." Earlier this year he called for dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency and replacing it with another governmental bureau, the Environmental Solutions Agency. However, Craig Shirley, a conservative consultant and author of the forthcoming biography, Citizen Newt: The Rise, Fall, and Future of Speaker Gingrich, points out that Gingrich's lifetime rating by the American Conservative Union is 90 out of a possible 100. "On all the gut check issues of the last 30 years from abortion to championing the individual over the state," Shirley says, Gingrich "has almost always been on the side of conservatism." In the annals of American conservatism, Shirley predicts, "Gingrich will rank high."