NEW YORK -- In the span of roughly 20 minutes on Thursday, Newt Gingrich compared Mitt Romney to Dwight Eisenhower and George Washington; professed confusion with birthers; sifted through a litany of Republican vice presidential picks, before offering up the names of his favorite zoo and snake.
The former House speaker turned defeated Republican presidential candidate sat down with Hardball's Chris Matthews for his first MSNBC interview since leaving the campaign, and the result was bizarre but strangely captivating television. More knowing banter than strenuous questioning, the conversation still managed to produce notable sound bites. Perhaps the newsiest of them all was Gingrich's insistence that attacking Romney on his private equity days -- something he tried to do during the heated days of the South Carolina primary -- would fail.
"Here's the problem they got," he said of President Barack Obama's efforts to make Bain Capital an issue, "it didn't work."
"I wouldn't have won it on that issue," he added. "That issue didn't work ... It doesn't work in general. Watch what is happening to him right now, there is a reason you have the governor of Massachusetts, the Democratic senator from California ..."
Matthews interjected before he could list all the Democrats who complained about the demonization of private equity. "Let's be honest. They hang out with those guys because they want their support," he said. "You know what's going on. Cory Booker. Come on."
Gingrich didn't back down. Nor did he take the numerous offerings of bait to criticize the candidate he now supports.
"Mitt Romney is a lot like Eisenhower," he declared at one point. "He is a very good organizer. He is a very methodical person. He is prepared to systematically do what he thinks is right for the country. And I think he might turn out to make a surprisingly good president."
Asked later about the idea that Romney was making his personal wealth the chief case for his campaign, the former speaker replied: "That's what George Washington would have said."
It seemed clear that Gingrich still harbored bad feelings about the way he was ushered out of the primary race. He never disputed Matthews' contention that, if not for a money disadvantage, he would have won. At one point, he responded affirmatively when the MSNBC host said Romney didn't tell the truth about him during the primary, choosing, merely, to say: "He did what he had to do."
And then, the conversation turned a bit weird, with Matthews pressing Gingrich on his fascination with animals.
"Best zoo in the country?"
"Oh, San Diego! Gingrich replied, without skipping a beat.
"Probably python," said the former speaker.