12/02/2011 02:57 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Newt Gingrich's Compassionate Conservatism: Is It Here To Stay?

When he stepped into the national spotlight in 1994 amid a Republican sweep of Congress, Newt Gingrich offered a bonanza of legislative promises: a balanced budget, welfare reform, and tax cuts for families, among others. But in his first speech to Congress as House speaker, Gingrich quickly honed in on a less tangible, emotional, and urgent moral vision.

Kids were dying in the inner city, he said. High school drop-outs were on the rise. For some students, a future in jail was more likely than one in college.

"How can any American read about an 11-year-old buried with his Teddy bear because he killed a 14-year-old, and then another 14-year-old killed him, and not have some sense of 'My God, where has this country gone?' How can we not decide that this is a moral crisis equal to segregation, equal to slavery?" he asked Americans.

While pundits have remarked lately about the surprisingly compassionate flavor of Gingrich's politics, the reality is that throughout his career there has always been a Nurturing Newt co-existing with the Nasty Newt, who rose to fame as a Republican reformer ready to squash the welfare state and replace it with an "opportunity society." There is the empathetic, compassionate conservative who wants to put humanity back into politics, and there is the ruthless, politically savvy operator who knows how to get what he wants -- whether it is squeezing Democrats out of Congress or rushing to impeach the president.

As Gingrich shoots up in polls just weeks ahead of the influential Iowa caucuses and the South Carolina primary, the compassionate conservative is in the spotlight. From his recent advocacy of a "humane" policy toward long-term undocumented immigrants, to controversial comments that child labor laws keep kids in poverty, Gingrich has surprised voters and competitors alike.

But in a Republican race where discussion of health care, the economy and family values have dominated the conversation, and where debate audiences have booed a gay soldier and cheered for the sick and uninsured to die, can Gingrich change the tone? Is Nurturing Newt, who has spent the last 13 years writing books and gaining coveted political consulting contracts, here to stay?

"I had a chat with him on the campaign trail last week. He is more philosophical than he used to be, though he has always had that side of him. He is more mellow than I have known him to be," says Doug Wead, a campaign strategist and author who is often credited for coining the term "compassionate conservative" in the late 1970s.

"He's been affected like any professional by being out out of his profession for 13 years. You get perspective on life and understanding," says Wead, who was an adviser to both Bush presidencies and currently is a contractor with the Ron Paul campaign.

In the years after his election as a Georgia representative to Congress in 1979, Gingrich sculpted his image as a man who transcended tired distinctions between left and right. "We are committed," he said in 1984, "to ideas, not to men or a man...We are for Reagan if he's Teddy Roosevelt, against him if he's William Howard Taft."

That outlook stayed with him through the mid-90s. On the night of the controversial Million Man March, he offered qualified praise, even though the march was partially aimed against policies of Gingrich's Republican Congress.

"I don't think that any white conservative anywhere in America ought to look at Louis Farrakhan and just condemn him, without asking yourself where were you when the children died, where were you when the schools failed, where were you when they had no hope, and unless we're prepared to roll up our sleeves, reach out and say, 'I'll give you an alternative,'" Gingrich said at the time.

But he disappointed many conservatives with lofty goals that -- beyond welfare reform -- produced little action. Many Republicans blamed his stubbornness for the 1995 government shutdown. A congressional ethics scandal involving his alleged use of tax-exempt charities to pursue partisan political work and his admission to cheating on his second wife soured his image as a man of unflinching standards. As The Huffington Post recently reported, Gingrich, who resigned from Congress in 1998, has few political allies today.

"I and many other evangelicals agree with many of Newt's ideas, but concerns remain," says Marvin Olasky, who was a close associate of Gingrich in the 1990s. Gingrich often touted Olasky's book, "The Tragedy of American Compassion," as what informed his view of the "moral urgency of coming to grips with what's happening to the poorest Americans."

Olasky, whose theories on compassionate conservatism also influenced President George W. Bush, recently wrote a critical article in WORLD Magazine on Gingrich's presidential run. "Who do you think Gingrich is now?" Olasky, the publication's editor-in-chief, wrote. "Gingrich's affair contributed powerfully to the conclusion reached by many Americans that the GOP was a party of moral hypocrites."

Since marrying the woman he had an affair with, Callista Bisek, a decade ago, Gingrich has often talked about his wife as a force of change in his life. Born Lutheran and a Southern Baptist since college, he converted to Catholicism in 2009 after years of attending Mass with Bisek.

A Gingrich spokesman did not reply to a request for comment, and while Gingrich hasn't spoken directly about his conversion's effect on his politics, he did give a peek into his religion in an interview with Olasky. He called himself "psychologically a Protestant" because of "the opportunity to go directly to God," but attracted to "the depth of the Catholic church." He said he likes the Psalms and said the "the degree to which salvation is ultimately based on faith, is in fact a leap of faith."

A friend of D.C. Archbishop Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Gingrich mixes smoothly with conservative Catholics, and in the spring he spoke to hundreds of them at the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Wuerl himself performed Gingrich's conversion ceremony.

Politically and socially, Gingrich in many ways mirrors the approach of the church. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has long crisscrossed party lines. The church strongly advocates on behalf of immigrants -- more than Gingrich has -- yet it has battled laws allowing same-sex marriage and abortion. Its social services arm, Catholic Charities, is one of the largest and most extensive in the country. Charitable giving through money and time is an integral part of the church, which runs hundreds of schools, orphanages and rehabilitation programs.

As his nomination prospects rise, Nurturing Newt is peering out from the crowded presidential field. "I don't see how the party that says it's the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century," he said before taking heat about that stance after a recent Washington, D.C. debate.

Those words, though, were not too thematically distant from those he spoke when he first became House speaker and challenged Americans to collectively solve the nation's problems.

"If all 200 million Americans give three hours a month, there would be 600 million voluntary hours a month to find a child and teach it to read, a drug addict to get off drugs or a poor person to teach how to be profitable," he said nearly 17 years ago. "We'd live in a different America."

Newt Gingrich 2012