As much fun as it'd be to sneeze at Newt Gingrich’s quixotic, vainglorious bid for president, you can’t sneeze at what he accomplished.
Let’s forget penguins, zoos, and Ellis the Elephant for a second and remember what Gingrich did.
1. He won a murderously-contested, crucial state in a presidential primary – South Carolina.
That set him apart from the vast majority of presidential wannabes and proved that he was a serious candidate (albeit a serious one who wanted to build a Chipotle, Noodles, Panera, and Super Target in some highly-trafficked corner of the moon).
2. He had moments of spontaneous transcendence in presidential debates that you’d rarely find from other wanna-bes.
In a way, Tim Pawlenty is a more serious person than Newt, but Pawlenty couldn’t have had as seriously a good moment as Gingrich during those debates.
Rick Santorum was a solid orator, but he didn’t provoke multiple standing ovations.
In fact, find me a moment where anyone else's words drove people from their comfortable seats into bloodlust, and I will personally buy you a burrito bowl at Newt Gingrich’s Chipotle on the moon.
(Btw, speaking of bloodlust, remember the Ogre-Mages on Warcraft 2 and their terrifying “bloodlust spell"? How ironic is it that the prim, proper Romney was actually the mage strutting around, granting his surrogates and Restore Our Future the bloodlust spell?)
3. Gingrich had some delicious underdog moments that other wanna-bes could only dream about.
His threat was so immediate and dangerous that he forced Romney, the front-runner, to abandon Rule #1 of being a front-runner: Don’t engage your foes, because it makes you look smaller and them bigger.
Romney abandoned that rule in Iowa, South Carolina, and Florida, because Newt was just that serious.
Of course, Romney’s hits worked big time, but they made him look smaller and meaner.
4. Gingrich officially reclaimed the title of “smartest politician on the planet who has the most stupid ideas."
That puts him in rare company which is kind of illustrious but kind of sad.
Gingrich reminds me of the inventor of the “chopstick fan”, which uses a fan to cool down the noodles on your chopstick so you don’t have to burn your tongue. I can’t decide if that’s brilliant or moronic.
But seriously, we should all admire Newt tremendously for his willingness to say things that everyone else is too scared to say. It takes supreme confidence, and politics desperately needs more courage and less cowardice.
5. Newt embraced himself, fully and completely.
That doesn’t sound all that remarkable, but how many politicians (how many people, no less!) have become so intimately familiar and pleased with who they are that their life is the type of breeze that honors the romance of wind-swept hair but not the destruction of a hurricane?
Ronald Reagan was comfortable in his skin, Cartman is comfortable in his skin, and one of the fundamental axioms of presidential politics is that you can’t get others to embrace who you are unless you first embrace yourself.
Speaking of which, Mitt Romney hasn’t gotten there yet, and while he’s made strides, one of his lingering weaknesses is that he can’t quite buy himself because he’s so worried that others won’t.
6. Gingrich had to run for president, and he did.
Financially, it was an awful decision, BUT... if you feel there’s something you have to do, it’s usually best to do it.
Let’s say you go to Denny’s every Friday night (open 24 hours!) and after a Grand Slam breakfast that’s too bad to love, but still, too cheap to hate, you see "The Claw" in the lobby and all those gnarly stuffed animals waiting to be picked.
It literally took me 25 years to break down and play the game, and I got burned badly. No stuffed animal. A bunch of lost change. Some embarrassment.
BUT… I was happy I did it.
Newt Gingrich’s campaign was all about using The Claw at Denny’s.
He looked a little stupid, at times, thinking he could actually grab the stuffed animal (and remember, sometimes you can get oh-so-close to actually pulling the animal up, but Florida destroys you).
Ultimately, Gingrich failed, but I suspect he’s happy he tried -- even if he went $4 million in debt trying to get the stuffed animal, and didn’t listen to smart kids around him who knew how to play The Claw.
7. Gingrich was relevant again.
Nothing short of a presidential run could have turned Newt Gingrich from a has-been to an almost-is. For men like Gingrich, it's a far crueler fate to be forgotten than to be mocked or ridiculed.
By nearly every possible metric, it was a bad idea for Gingrich to run, but his story needed a presidential run somewhere in it, and I suspect that it will add a sad but necessary chapter to the biography that Gingrich is already hoping Walter Isaacson will write.