12/05/2011 10:34 am ET | Updated Feb 04, 2012

Newt Gingrich Attends Kennedy Center Honors

WASHINGTON -- Having surged to the lead in the polls and declared himself the Republican nominee a month in advance of the first vote, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich left the campaign trail last night to take part in a quintessential ritual for well-off and well-connected capital insiders: He attended the Kennedy Center Honors.

Or maybe he didn't leave the campaign trail at all. Gingrich sees himself as existing above, beyond and outside of all political labels and definitions; he is his own designation, nothing more or less than Citizen Newt.

So, besides the fact that he had the cash for a ticket -- he was in the orchestra, where seats run to more than $5,000 a pop -- Newt's presence at the star-studded and generally Democrat-oriented event served as a reminder that once he gets past the mere formality of actually winning the GOP nomination and is done feeding the baser instincts of Tea Party conservative, he will try to position himself as a man of culture, eclectic learning and moderate, inclusive political inclinations.

I spoke with Newt, whom I have covered on and off for 20 years, in the lobby of the Kennedy Center Opera House during intermission. I told him that I had saved all of the books, field manuals, ancient VHS tapes and other effluvium from the years of his initial rise to power and his tenure as House speaker -- the years before he had become the capital's best-paid "historian."

I told him I had been rummaging through it all now that he was rocketing back to the top.

"I'm sure you've got the makings of a biography there," he said, assuming the obvious: that I would want to become one of his many biographers.

"And what did you conclude from looking through that material?" he asked, now adopting the tone of a stern history professor.

"I concluded that the Democrats better be careful what they wished for," I answered -- truthfully. (The Obama crowd seems to think that they could easily take the air out of the Gingrich dirigible, which could be a fatal mistake.)

The professor seemed pleased. And then he did something typical: He went for an obscure historical analogy.

"Yes," he said, "this is exactly like the days of Pat Brown in California. When Pat Brown was running for governor, the guy he most feared was Elmer Robinson, the moderate Republican mayor of San Francisco. He was the guy who could have defeated the Democratic machine that Pat Brown was building in the state in the 1950s."

When I got home I of course googled Elmer Robinson. He was a lawyer with a night-school education and a moderate Republican who served as San Francisco mayor from 1948 to 1956. During his tenure, the City by the Bay built a lot of schools, libraries and police stations and greatly expanded the airport.

Robinson was a believer in government; a kind of Republican who, ironically, first got wiped off the map when Sen. Barry Goldwater was anointed at the GOP convention at the Cow Palace in San Francisco in 1964.

As Newt spoke, other patrons at the event came up from time to time to say hello. He wasn't mobbed. There was no sense of electricity surrounding the man who now has to be considered frontrunner to take the job from the fellow who was upstairs in the president's box.

The truth is, Newt's riding the wave right now, and he has tons of former associates around town. But not many of those associates are part of his "team." Frank Luntz, who helped Newt craft the language and concept of the "Contract with America" in 1994, is not and will not be part of the team. Newt has the support of the Georgia delegation in the House and Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, but few other members are racing to get aboard.

Newt was an oddly solitary figure in the lobby of the Kennedy Center, only steps from the giant bust of JFK. But he had an air of serenity about him.

He told people at the event that if he became president, he would be a big supporter of the Kennedy Center Honors. And by the way I heard it, he didn't seem to have much doubt that he would get the chance.