By Tom Baxter

The most protracted presidential campaign departure I can recall before the present example was Wesley Clark’s in 2004, and that was only because the general got cold feet halfway down an elevator in Memphis heading toward his withdrawal speech after the Tennessee Democratic Primary. As a result he made the press corps take an extra bus ride to Little Rock the next day before he faced the inevitable.

That was nothing compared to Newt, of course. In what he may well consider to be a template for how future unsuccessful candidates should structure their goodbyes, Gingrich let it be known a week in advance that he’d be officially leaving the campaign on Tuesday, and then – you’ve got to love this guy – postponed the announcement until Wednesday. His long goodbye gave President Obama another joke line for Saturday night’s White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner.

“I know at this point many of you are expecting me to go after my likely opponent, Newt Gingrich,” Obama quipped. “Newt, there’s still time, man.”

From the taxpayer’s perspective, the Gingrich campaign ended last Thursday night, when his Secret Service detail – which has been variously estimated at costing north or south of $40,000 a day – was lifted. This was not Gingrich’s idea, but the result of pressure from a taxpayers group.

We’ll no doubt hear more on Wednesday about the benefits of this elongated twilight, but one has been to maximize the number of Gingrich retrospectives leading up to the long-awaited final bow. One after another pundit has lined up to say that this isn’t the last we’ll hear from Newt, and that’s the truth. You can almost see his photograph now, beside the former astronauts and women CEOs, on the full-page ad for one of those big motivational shows that come to town from time to time. He might title his speech “The Art of Bouncing Back.”

Nevertheless, this has been a singularly costly venture, as failed presidential campaigns go. The Center for Health Transformation, aka the Gingrich Group, which enabled Gingrich to amass a tidy fortune after he left Congress, has gone bankrupt. The presidential campaign is more than $4 million in debt. That Fox News commentary job he had before the campaign is history, after his campaign feud with the network.

If political capital still means anything in the Republican Party – and that’s a subject for another column – he’s lost a lot of that, too. After entering the race as the holder of the tablet with Reagan’s 11th Commandment inscribed on it, Gingrich leaves as a faded sourpuss who didn’t know when to stop throwing rocks at the inevitable nominee.

How did that happen? That’s the funny thing about presidential campaigns. On one hand there’s the immeasurable calculation and cynicism involved in the creation and marketing of a candidate, even one as mercurial as this one, with his Greek vacations and Tiffany bills. The calculating side knows when it’s time to “go bye-bye,” as Gingrich put it the other day in North Carolina.

But presidential campaigns also stir strange passions, luring the unwary deeper into the struggle, past the point of political self-preservation, and that’s what seems to have happened after Gingrich got carpet-bombed by the Mitt Romney super PAC. Gingrich seemed genuinely wounded that a rival would trash his record.

“I have more substance than any other candidate in modern history,” Gingrich declared last year in Iowa, characteristically giving himself a lot to live up to. In this campaign, he didn’t. Despite all the self-promotion as a “transformational figure” and a thinker of “grandiose” thoughts, he let his campaign devolve into a series of sucker-slaps at the media and shots at his opponents.

The Republican campaign could have used some substance, as it slipped into its long and anticlimactic final phase, but Gingrich proved more of a distraction for the party than an inspiration.

When Gingrich takes the podium as a candidate for the last time this week, he’ll almost certainly have Callista, his wife of nearly 12 years, at his side. We’ll never know exactly how much all of this was about her. Gingrich’s indulgences in his wife, the vacation and the jewelry bill, nearly derailed the campaign before it had been properly launched. But her unflagging and perfectly composed presence at every campaign event often gave the impression it was she who was really driving it.

Expect a transformational withdrawal speech, if such a thing is possible. We’ve waited a long time for it.

Tom Baxter has written about politics and the South for more than four decades. He was national editor and chief political correspondent at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and later edited The Southern...

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