12:00 pm Dec. 5, 2011
Yesterday morning's meeting between Newt Gingrich and Donald Trump hadn't been listed on Gingrich's public schedule, but when a crowd of reporters and camera crews showed up in the gilded atrium of the Trump Tower, a press conference began, just as if it had been planned all along.
It was part of Gingrich's circus-like December swing through New York City, a unusually lengthy diversion from the early primary states to the media capital of America, less than a month before the Iowa caucuses.
"I like being in New York at Christmas," said Gingrich, surrounded by a mob that was one part eager press, and three parts curious public, with their cell phone cameras held up above the crowd.
The meeting-turned-press availibility was part of a full agenda for Gingrich in New York: He had also attended a Tea Party rally on Staten Island, and a Fox News forum in Manhattan, and was also scheduled to attend a high-dollar fund-raiser and to deliver an evening speech to the Monday Meeting.
It was all in fairly sharp contrast to Mitt Romney's September visit to New York, during which he scheduled a similar conference with Trump. At the time, he carefully avoided any public record of the meeting, going so far as to use a rear entrance so that the two men wouldn't be captured together on camera.
The contrast only served to underscore Romney's unease with unscripted publicity, and with the press in general: Last week, he called questions from Fox News "uncalled for," and a behind-the-scenes piece from the Fox forum on Saturday night showed Romney terrified of a roving reporter. Meanwhile, two magazine cover stories (the New York Times Magazine and Time, respectively) paint Romney as an uncompelling, mechanical campaigner, trying to tweak his explanations for past positions.
Although Donald Trump did not actually bestow his endorsement on Gingrich this weekend—Trump is, after all, scheduled to moderate a G.O.P. debate on Dec. 27 in Iowa—the event turned into a branding exercise for Gingrich's controversial ideas about how to set a proper example for poor children about work habits.
"We're going to be picking 10 young, wonderful children, and we're going to make them apprenti," said Trump, who, of course, hosts "The Apprentice."
Gingrich defended Trump when asked about criticism, from Ron Paul and others, that the candidates' kowtowing to Trump degrades the process.
“I’m actually very surprised that one of my friends would have said that," Gingrich said. "This is a country that elected a peanut farmer to the presidency, that elected an actor who had made two movies with a chimpanzee to the presidency. This is a country of enormously wide-open talent. Donald Trump is a great showman. He’s also a great businessman.”
After a few questions, they called it quits, and Gingrich turned around behind him to greet some well-wishers. He reached over a counter filled with pink and purple Donald J. Trump Signature Collection ties, and shook hands with the women selling them. And he smiled broadly as the crush of cameras followed him out of the building and into an S.U.V. waiting by the sidewalk.
Reporters were still sitting on the floor of the atrium, filing their stories, when a Trump employee set up an easel with a placard advertising a Trump book signing next week.
ON SATURDAY AFTERNOON, ABOUT 20 REPORTERS WERE standing in Cherry Blossom Room of the Hilton Garden Inn on Staten Island, furiously checking their phones for updates on Herman Cain's announcement in Atlanta.
"He's suspending his campaign!" one called out, shortly before Gingrich appeared in the hallway, walking alongside his wife, Callista. "Here he comes!"
"It's great to be back in Staten Island," Gingrich said, as Callista stood in the wings, just outside the shot.
After commenting on Cain (Gingrich called him "a friend," going back to the early 1990s) and Israel (President Obama's recent comments about his administration's support for Israel were "delusional"), he opened it up for questions.
The toughest one, from WNYC's Anna Sale, concerned whether Gingrich recognized his own flaws as a candidate, which include affairs and multiple marriages, and how his background might contrast with that of Romney, who has cultivated an image that is almost comically wholesome.
""Well there's a lot of things in that question, you did well there," he said.
He patiently explained that only Christ was perfect, and then pivoted, saying that when it comes to Romney, "we are very, very different in a wide variety of ways," including in that "I have consistently been a supporter of Ronald Reagan."
He answered a question about visa reform and then was asked, by an MTV News reporter with edgy hair and fashionably understated clothes, how it makes him feel that so many college graduates are coming home to sleep on their parents' couches.
"It makes me feel terrible," Gingrich said, before plugging his efforts to push private Social Security accounts on college campuses.
After ten minutes, his deputy press secretary, Michelle Selesky, tried unsuccessfully to wrap things up.
But New York Post reporter Carl Campanile got in a follow-up, about recent criticism from Republican congressman Peter King and former Republican congressman Guy Molinari that the speaker was "evil," ineffective, and lacked discipline.
Gingrich winked at Selesky while Campanile was asking the question, then said, "Look, I have been a very aggressive reformer. I have stepped on a lot of toes ... I actually expected our committee chairmen to do their jobs. One of the reasons I left Congress is, I think, I frankly burned out a number of Republicans because I pushed so hard for reform."
He went on: "You don't balance the budget four years in a row without saying to some people, 'No, you're not going to get what you want.' You don't get through the first tax cut in 16 years without saying to some people, 'No you're not going to get what you want.'
"And as president, I would veto bills that I thought were bad. I wouldn't automatically sign bills just because they came out of a Republican Congress. And that frankly means that some congressmen who have petty interests—and I'm not talking about any individual—but some congressmen who have petty interests and petty concerns in petty jurisdictions, find themselves unhappy to have a genuine reformer. I would rather be a real reformer and have the American people happy and have people in Washington unhappy, than be phony and have Washington happy with me and the American people unhappy with me.
"Thank you all very much," Gingrich said, and found Callista, who had retired to the hallway sometime around the question about his three marriages.
"Good job," she said, straightening his suit.
SHORTLY AFTERWARD, BENEATH THE DRAPED CEILING of the hotel's massive, mostly full ballroom, Gingrich delivered a combative, often campy stump speech to crowd of Tea Party supporters clearly happy for the unexpected opportunity to be hearing from a top-tier presidential candidate.
"We both love many things Italian and that makes it very easy around here," Gingrich said, before praising the art at the hotel.