Newt Gingrich was looking fit and tanned as he stood before a sea of young conservatives this morning at the Young America's Foundation National Conservative Student Conference. The weeklong event, held at George Washington University in Washington, is billed as an "entry point into the conservative movement," and this year's version featured speeches by Robert Novak, Michelle Malkin and, wrapping up the event Friday night, G. Gordon Liddy. With panels titled "Standing Up to the Left in Hostile Places" and "Liberal Bias in School Textbooks," planners may have imagined that Gingrich would give a lively rah-rah-Republican presentation. They would have been wrong.
Prior to Gingrich's arrival, the crowd -- a mish-mash of polo shirts and pinstriped suits, platform heels and pashmina wraps -- had been worked up by Republican Sen. James Inhofe, who taught them all about the "far left elitists" and their Chicken Little climate change hysteria. Inhofe's PowerPoint included slides of polar bears and "environmentalists" like Leonardo DiCaprio and Barbra Streisand (boo!). He referenced Al Gore's "science fiction movie," and finished off the hour with some good news about the war: "A miracle is taking place now in Iraq," he said, and explained that there is now zero anti-American propaganda in the country's mosques and that American troops, instead of retreating to the Green Zone at night, are now "bedding down" with Iraqi families.
As 9 a.m. drew near, the students started to get restless, turning in their seats to see if Gingrich had come in. Finally, the former speaker of the House -- who'd been introduced as "the most articulate communicator of conservative principles alive today" -- made his way to the stage amid a standing ovation, thunderous applause and cheers.
He began benignly enough, using an anecdote about going to Disney World with his grandchildren to explain an epiphany he'd had about the value of not "thinking like a Republican." From there Gingrich moved into waters the students surely did not expect. He cited the Detroit school system, where a black male is more likely to go to prison than graduate from high school.
"How can we tolerate systems more likely to send young Americans to prison than college?" asked Gingrich. "Republicans have this maniacally dumb idea of red versus blue. They say Detroit is a blue place, so we're not going to go there."
And he was just getting started.
"Republican political doctrine has been a failure," Gingrich said. "Look at New Orleans. How can you say that was a success? Look at Baghdad ... We've been in charge for six years and I don't think you can look around and say that was a great success.
"We have got to get beyond this political bologna. I'm not allowed to say anything positive about Hillary Clinton because then I'm not a loyal Republican, and she's not allowed to say anything positive about me because then she's not a loyal Democrat. What a stupid way to run a country." This last line he nearly spat out, expressing what seemed like genuine outrage. But the response was muted. Tepid applause bubbled up and then died within seconds.
Inhofe had recommended the students read Michael Crichton's "State of Fear" to learn about the global warming hoax, but Gingrich suggested they pick up newly elected French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy's "Testimony."
And finally, when it seemed he'd been as blasphemous as he could possibly be, Gingrich pulled out a whopper: "None of you should believe we are winning this war," he said, referring to the so-called war on terror. "We are in a phony war ... we have not been taking this seriously."
When his speech was over, the students stood and applauded politely, but the volume was distinctly lower than it had been just an hour before.
Outside, a group of young women taking a smoking break discussed what they'd just seen.
"There wasn't a lot of conviction in his voice," observed one.
"There isn't a lot of conviction in politics," answered her friend.
Back inside, the morning's final speaker, Michelle Easton (founder of the Clare Boothe Luce Policy Institute), was making the crowd laugh and coo with her descriptions of "those angry feminists whose No. 1 issue is how to dispose of their unborn children conveniently." Whatever bipartisan spirit Gingrich brought into the room had vanished. As, perhaps, he knew it would.