WASHINGTON — A presidential candidate no longer, Newt Gingrich departs the race for the White House as likely the most consequential and certainly the most interesting Republican of his time never to sit in the Oval Office.
Ferociously partisan, he unified his party behind the 1994 Contract With America, the conservative manifesto that helped propel Republicans to control of the House for the first time in 40 years and made him speaker in the process.
Yet given to overreach, he quickly blundered into twin government shutdowns so damaging to his own party that a fellow Republican peremptorily pulled the plug.
“Our message is not a government shutdown,” said Sen. Bob Dole, the Senate Majority leader at the time. “Our message to the American people is a balanced budget in seven years.”
Gingrich’s rhetoric has long been polarizing, by design.
He called House Democrats “a leadership of thugs” in 1985 after they overturned a House election in Indiana that a Republican appeared to have won. Allies point to the event as a key turning point in Gingrich’s slow rise inside a party long in the minority.
A man who rose to power in part by exploiting the ethics problems of others, Gingrich was himself formally reprimanded by the House in 1997 and ordered to pay a $300,000 penalty, the first time in history a speaker was disciplined for ethical transgression.
As speaker, he was favored by Republican rank-and-file lawmakers for his ability to anticipate political trends and turn them to advantage.
Yet Gingrich’s less-inspired insights bordered on goofiness. He used his turn to speak at the 1996 Republican National Convention in San Diego to discuss … beach volleyball.
“No bureaucrat would have invented it. And that’s what freedom is all about,” he said as an Olympic gold medalist stood nearby on stage.
Most memorably, perhaps, he pushed the Republican-controlled House to impeach President Bill Clinton over a dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky — at a time when Gingrich himself was conducting an extramarital affair with a congressional employee, later to become his third wife.
After four years as speaker, he was forced out by Republicans following the loss of seats in the 1998 midterm elections. He had survived a coup attempt more than a year earlier by members of his leadership team.
And yet for all the tumult, divided government yielded highly consequential legislation in the four years Gingrich was speaker.
He and Clinton compromised on a far-reaching overhaul of the welfare system in the summer of 1996.
Over the course of a career, Gingrich, 68, went from rabble rouser to the pinnacle of establishment power and back again.
Rabble rousing was the way to power, he thought. It worked once, in Congress, but not the second time, in his bid for the White House.
He bid farewell to his supporters in a video posted on his campaign website Tuesday. “Your help was vital,” he said.
A formal announcement that he is ending the campaign, coupled with an endorsement for Mitt Romney, is on the calendar for today.