Mark Leibovich Takes on 'Nasty Newt'

Newt Gingrich is "among the more divisive political figures of recent decade" and always threatens to become "Nasty Newt." Yet former vice president Al Gore was a "compelling" "pop culture icon."

The Times's slanted political personality reporter Mark Leibovich returned to the Times pages Thursday after a long book-leave absence to file a campaign trail story from Iowa on GOP candidate Newt Gingrich, aka 'Nasty Newt': 'On Trail, Gingrich Strains to Show Nice-Guy Side.'

Concluding a luncheon speech here to a Rotary Club, Newt Gingrich held his arms out to his sides and unleashed a most un-Newt-like gesture to his audience: a pantomime of a big group embrace.

'I need you to be with me,' said Mr. Gingrich, which he distinguished from needing supporters to be merely for him. Seated adoringly at his side, his wife, Callista, turned instantly dewy-eyed.

It is an oddly plaintive, therapylike moment in the stump speech of a candidate not easily described as 'huggable.' In fact, for an irascible former speaker of the House whom many would place among the more divisive political figures of recent decades, the Nice Newt persona can fit him at times like a too-tight blazer: uncomfortably.


Yet, as he rambles forth in both bus and rhetoric, Nice Newt often seems to feel that his most troublesome opponent might be a more-than-formidable alter-ego, Nasty Newt.

'I'll just get in trouble,' Mr. Gingrich said sheepishly Tuesday night at a pizza place in Decorah, by way of declining (at first) to answer a man's question about why his fellow Republicans always embrace Keynesian economic principles. His stump regimen is marked by such moments, in which the candidate seems to be burning dozens of calories per second trying to keep Nasty Newt in check.

On Wednesday, Mr. Gingrich was asked by NBC's Chuck Todd what kind of relationship he had with his second wife.

'There is no relationship,' Mr. Gingrich replied, bringing a fresh wave of headlines conjuring Nasty Newt.

Even a flattering anecdote about Gingrich's natural way with children has a sting.

Maybe the most natural expression of Nice Newt comes in the presence of children. Unlike some politicians who strain through such encounters, Mr. Gingrich becomes instantly wide-eyed, like a big kid himself, never mind his recent suggestion that poor children might benefit from picking up the janitorial chores at their schools.

His voice - which can seem whiny and indignant on stage - softens several notes. He delighted in buying toys for his grandchildren in Dyersville while Mrs. Gingrich signed a copy of her children's book, 'Sweet Land of Liberty' (featuring Ellis the Elephant) for a man's young daughter.

Democrats usually come off looking better in Leibovich's personality-driven reporting. In March 2007 he went on the Charlie Rose talk show to discuss a flattering article he had written about former vice president Al Gore, and called him a 'compelling" "pop culture icon.'