Anyone who doesn’t believe in an afterlife must not live in Washington. Rarely, however, has reincarnation been so lucrative as it has for the man who now tops some polls for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich transfigured himself from a political flameout into a thriving business conglomerate. The power of the Gingrich brand fueled a for-profit collection of enterprises that generated close to $100 million in revenue over the past decade, said his longtime attorney Randy Evans.
Among Gingrich’s moneymaking ventures: a health-care think tank financed by six-figure dues from corporations; a consulting business; a communications firm that handled his speeches of up to $60,000 a pop, media appearances and books; a historical documentary production company; a separate operation to administer the royalties for the historical fiction that Gingrich writes with two co-authors; even an in-house literary agency that has counted among its clients a presidential campaign rival, former senator Rick Santorum (R-Pa.).
Separate from all of that was his nonprofit political operation, American Solutions for Winning the Future. Before it disintegrated this summer in Gingrich’s absence, American Solutions generated another $52 million and provided some of the money that allowed the former speaker to travel by private jet and hired limousine.
Along the way, Gingrich has become a wealthy man, earning $2.5 million in personal income last year, according to his financial disclosure form.
As unforgiving as Washington can be, it has long had a soft spot for its has-beens, even those who gave up power in defeat or disgrace.
There is a well-trodden path from Capitol Hill to downtown law and lobbying firms, where former members of Congress can earn a far better living than they did when they were on the taxpayer’s dime — and still have afternoons free for golf.
But that would be a narrow and confining existence for a man who has always considered himself a transformational figure, and even a historic one.
“He just had a vision for being a great citizen,” said Evans, who set up Gingrich’s business operation and served as its chairman. “He looked for ways to participate in the dialogue that was going on.”
In advance of his presidential run, Gingrich disentangled himself from his business empire. His presidential campaign even had to pay $8,400 to Gingrich Productions for the right to use the domain name www.newt.org.
However, some of his dealings have come under new scrutiny as Gingrich’s campaign, which collapsed in June, has experienced a resurrection of its own.
Most controversial has been up to $1.8 million he collected in consulting fees from Freddie Mac, a government-backed firm whose lending practices conservatives blame for creating the conditions that enabled the housing crisis.
Gingrich and his allies portray his financial success as a natural result of a penchant for coming up with big ideas and his flair for selling them. They contend — and there is no evidence to the contrary — that Gingrich has never engaged in lobbying.
“I understood Washington reasonably well, as well as I understand the country reasonably well,” Gingrich said in an interview. “So if you’re looking for strategic advice, I was on the short list of people available, and in the same tradition as [former secretary of state] Jim Baker or anybody else who has been a very, very senior person.”
However, many critics say he was hired because of his influence and access.
“The reason someone would hire Gingrich was that he was former speaker of the House, he had good connections to Republicans and good knowledge of how Washington works,” said Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks lobbying and money in politics. “He may have steered clear of what the legal definition of lobbying is. But people were hiring him for the same reasons that they hire lobbyists, which was to help them achieve their objectives with the government.”
In one 2004 presentation, his Center for Health Transformation think tank enticed prospective members with “access to Newt Gingrich” and “direct Newt interaction,” as well as “access to top transformational leadership across industry and government.”
Newt Inc.’s start
What has become known as Newt Inc. had a modest beginning, a few months after his unceremonious resignation as speaker in the wake of GOP losses in the 1998 midterm elections. Gingrich’s tenure as speaker had been a bumpy one, begun in the glory of the first House takeover by Republicans in 40 years but later beset by an ethics inquiry, a government shutdown and even an attempted coup by other GOP House leaders. His fellow Republicans had come to regard Gingrich as a liability.
Cast out by official Washington, Gingrich gathered his most loyal friends to figure out what to do next.