WASHINGTON -- In his early days in the nation's capital, before he toppled the 40-year Democratic hegemony in the House and became speaker, Newt Gingrich would rise at dawn, put on combat boots and take brisk, military-style walks along the Mall.
Whether he did this because he actually liked to do it or because it was good for his image (I once went along with him) is a question utterly beside the point. He was being whom he wanted to become.
His author friend Craig Shirley in an upcoming biography calls Gingrich "Citizen Newt." In other words, he's the cold-blooded conservative revolutionary and demolition expert who knew -- and still knows -- precisely where to place the C-4 to blow up the establishment.
As Newt marched along the Mall, his boots crunching on the gravel pathways, he would deliver mini-lectures on history and the supposed corruption, ossification and evil of the House. He had studied all the great leaders -- from Mao and Mussolini to Churchill and de Gaulle, dictators, presidents and parliamentarians -- or at least their most famous quotes, and what he saw was their patience, their rhino-hided durability, their utter faith in their own course and their implacable hatred of the powers that be.
So when he came to Congress in the pre-Reagan conservative dawn of 1979, Gingrich immediately went to work doing what he does best: demolishing enemy structures with blitzkrieg maneuvers and apocalyptic agitprop.
First, he destroyed a corrupt but entrenched Democratic congressman from Detroit named Charles Diggs, who was censured and eventually resigned.
Then, he began calling the Democratic leaders names. They were weak on defense, he said (his stepfather, whom he loved, was an Army officer), and their ideas would bring to our shores "the joys of Soviet-style brutality and the murder of women and children." The House speaker at the time, Jim Wright of Texas, was "so consumed with his own power that he is like Mussolini." Even Ronald Reagan felt the lash. When the Gipper met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the hawkish Newt called it "the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with Chamberlain in 1938 in Munich."
Later, when Newt's political action committee financed Republicans running in the 1990 election, he advised them to describe Democrats with words such as "sick," "traitor," "waste," "corruption," "decay" and "anti-flag." When he promoted his slate of Republicans in 1994, he said his strategy was to paint his foes as "the enemy of normal Americans."
It worked. The wall crumbled, the Democrats fell, and Gingrich and his legions came to power in 1995.
As the GOP primary season hurtles toward the official starting line, forget all the talk about Newt the genially creative, endearingly bloviating college professor. Forget about Newt the onetime "compassionate conservative." Forget about the Newt who has been "mellowed" by his third marriage, his conversion to Catholicism, his wealth (amassed as a soothsayer and access peddler on K Street) or even his 68 years of age.
All of those Newts may matter later. The Newt who matters now is the demolition expert, the implacable Citizen Newt out to blow up something. This Newt appeals to both younger conservatives and the baby-boomer "New Right" -- that's what it was called in the days gone by. They're invigorated by the old fire, as though they were channeling Barry Goldwater.
And these same voters are the most highly motivated in the early election season -- they're ones he needs and seems on the verge of nailing down in places such as Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
"He acts and talks like he is in it for blood, and he's in it to 'save Western civilization,'" said Shirley. "And that is the kind of thing we heard when we were college kids, and we love to hear it again."
So crank up the Apocalypse Machine. In Newt's world, President Barack Obama is a boogeyman like no other, able to scare small children and former speakers alike with a single utterance.
Obama and the Democrats, Gingrich declared, are a "secular, socialist machine [that] represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did." Beware "gay and secular fascism in this country," which "wants to impose its will on the rest of us and is prepared to use violence." Victory for the president's agenda "would mean the end of America as it has been for the last 400 years."
Indeed, if "we do not decisively win this struggle over the nature of America," said Gingrich -- in other words, if he doesn't get the GOP nomination and triumph in the election -- then within a few decades, we will live in "a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American."
Gingrich's rhetorical demolition puts him in a long line of propagandistic sappers. Listen to the seemingly profound, yet over-the-top outrageous historical analogies. They're so wild as to be impossible to disprove, especially the dire predictions about events decades from now. They're so wild as to be unanswerable -- or answerable only by political foes stupid enough to accept the superficial validity of the accusation framework.
But for now it seems to be working, at least with the hard core. Gingrich received the New Hampshire Union Leader endorsement. He has risen in the polls in the early primary and caucus states. The Mitt Romney campaign seems about to wet its collective pants. The other contenders -- either ineffectual or incompetent or both -- don't meet the mood of an angry GOP electorate out not just to dismantle but to destroy Obama.
Newt is marching, again.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article attributed to writer Craig Shirley the characterization of Gingrich as a cold-blooded conservative revolutionary and demolition expert. He did not make such a statement.