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Newt Gingrich: The Health Nut

5 minute read
Karen Tumulty/Washington

The scene was the kind that happens almost every morning in Washington. At a downtown think tank, one expert was introducing another at a conference so thinly attended that two-thirds of the seats around the table were empty. The question at hand: health care and, specifically, how emotions affect organic processes. When the visiting authority launched into a scientific explanation of why panic constricts the arteries, the other one cut him off. “First of all,” Newt Gingrich interrupted, “you have to tell them about petting bunnies.”

When Gingrich resigned as House Speaker a year ago, the only thing that seemed certain was that the world had not heard the last of the heat-seeking former backbencher who toppled the Capitol in 1994. But these days when he makes the papers, it is mostly with the details of his messy divorce from wife Marianne (last week’s testimony: his affair with congressional aide Callista Bisek began two years before Bill Clinton met Monica) or with the latest sighting of the lovebirds canoodling over pricey wine.

It turns out, however, that Gingrich has had plenty else to keep him busy and engage the idea-a-minute side of him that so often exasperated his colleagues when he was running the House. The most unlikely reincarnation of the paunchy ex-lawmaker is as a zealous advocate of the virtues of a low-fat diet, exercise and stress management. Although he is occasionally seen at a downtown Washington health club, no one would call him buff–he is still carrying the legacy of too many cheeseburgers and Fritos from the Capitol basement takeout. But that has not prevented him from bonding with best-selling author Dr. Dean Ornish, who wrote Love and Survival: 8 Pathways to Intimacy and Health and Eat More, Weigh Less: Dr. Dean Ornish’s Life Choice Program for Losing Weight Safely While Eating Abundantly.

Ornish was the guest with whom Gingrich shared the conference room several weeks ago at the slightly right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, where he is a resident scholar. But while he is enamored with Ornish’s approach–and devours studies of medical breakthroughs that show, among other things, that rabbits that are regularly stroked have less plaque in their arteries–he puts them in the context of policy. He argues, for example, that the government and private insurers could save untold billions on unnecessary heart surgery. And he doesn’t stop there. “General Motors ought to be saying to every [employee] that they cover, ‘If you decide you need a heart transplant, you ought to be taking vitamin E, you ought to be taking selenium,'” he said. “That ought to be part of the contract General Motors insists on.”

In addition to his gig studying and advocating health policy at A.E.I., Gingrich is a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s conservative Hoover Institution, where he focuses on technology and society. And while neither place pays him, Gingrich is for the first time in his life earning big money for his thoughts, making speeches–35 or 40 so far this year–for which he charges $35,000 in Washington and Atlanta and $50,000 when he has to travel. “Every audience gets it,” he bubbled in an interview last week. “In the country at large, there is an understanding that the old order is crumbling. I love it!” He also has a corporate consulting firm, a syndicated radio show and a perch as a commentator on Fox News.

His speaking fees and the money raised for his Friends of Newt Gingrich political-action committee pay for other projects. Gingrich last month put up websites to promote his other endeavors: revamping Social Security to allow people to invest their own premiums; abolishing inheritance taxes; and shrinking government by cutting a combined load of federal, state and local taxes to no more than 25% of income.

Then there is his leisure time. Once a month, the former college professor sits in on classes as a student at Georgia Tech, and spends half a day at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A month ago, with the birth of his daughter’s daughter, he became a grandfather. “I’m so happy being in private life that I felt the absence of frustration,” he notes. “So I took up golf.”

And of course, he has time to ponder politics. In the interview, he said his party’s chance of holding the House will ride on its presidential nominee, and he thinks either George W. Bush or John McCain is up to it. (“Forbes, frankly, should have run for Governor of New Jersey.”) But what either candidate must do is find the right four or five issues and convince voters they are relevant to their lives. Asked to name those four or five, Gingrich, typically, comes up with six. (They’re mostly the ones listed on his website.) “There’s no [stopping]…better ideas,” he exulted. “I’m 56 years old. I probably have 20 years of talking about better ideas ahead of me.”

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