Newt and the newts: Meet the amphibian behind the man

Amazing resilience may not be the only thing Gingrich and the eponymous amphibians have in common. Just ask Bob Dole and Phil Gramm.

Crosscut archive image.

Phil "the Newt" Gramm shows his stuff.

Amazing resilience may not be the only thing Gingrich and the eponymous amphibians have in common. Just ask Bob Dole and Phil Gramm.

Pundits still marvel at the resurrection of Newt Gingrich, a politician who has crashed and burned more times than Dale Earnhardt, whose campaign staff jumped ship months ago. Maybe they should have consulted an amphibian biologist or newt (yes, that’s lower case) aficionado. They — or should I say we? — could have told them something about the resilience of newts, and about their other remarkable qualities.

I use the term “newt aficionado” advisedly: P. G. Wodehouse limmed the type as the acme of English eccentricity with Bertie Wooster’s newt-obsessed cousin Gussie Fink-Nottle. Luckily, London's ex-mayor Ken Livingstone, a real-life newt fancier and proud of it, has improved the image. He writes vividly of the thrill of watching a newt stalk and devour a proffered earthworm “more than half [its] length.” The Serengeti has nothing on Red Ken's backyard pond.

I only joined the fraternity by chance. Twenty years ago, a neighbor presented my daughter with two fire belly newts her new landlord would not let her keep. When school started, Kate took them up to reside as mascots in her fourth-grade classroom. I took them back for the summer, then returned with them in September. “Oh, no,” the teacher said. “We’ve decided to do gerbils this year.” I took them home, the reluctant co-parent of two newts.

Eventually, it seemed only right to name them. Then, as recently, a scrappy, conservative new generation of congressional Republicans was on the rise, led by their pitbull minority whip Newt Gingrich. Naturally I looked to other Republican pols for namesakes. One of the newts had a particularly blunt, torpedo-like way of stalking earthworms; I named him Phil Gramm, after a Texas senator who pursued corporate campaign contributions with the same alacrity and imagined, though no one else did, that he could be elected president.

The other newt demonstrated a particularly impressive newt trait: He’d lost one leg in a fall and grown it back, four fingers and all. (Newts can grow new limbs, hearts, eyes, spinal cords, intestines, and jaws. Researchers are trying to figure out the trick and copy it for human use; Newt Gingrich, with his serial policy passions, ideological personas, and marriages, is part way there.) Naturally I named him Bob Dole, after the Kansas senator who nearly lost his arm in war, and who beat out Gramm and others to win the 1996 Republican presidential nomination (only to get trounced by Bill Clinton).

Through Bob and Phil, I discovered that newts are improbable perfect pets for busy urbanites: they’re quiet, elegant in a slippery sort of way, low-impact, and, unlike Newts, low-maintenance: A worm or a few fish pellets or wayward flies every couple days, fresh water now and then, and they’re happy as a Newt on a talk show. But like a good candidate they’re also animated, responsive, and entertaining when you want them to be. Wriggle your finger like a worm or a microphone and they’ll follow it anywhere.

Bob Dole (the newt) never got to do Viagra ads, but he lasted six more years. Then one morning he was floating upside down. Maybe Phil Gramm finall got his revenge for that 1996 campaign.

Phil Gramm has lasted so long he’s now called “the newt.” He’s still merrily chasing worms and fingers over at my daughter’s house; his age could be anything on the far side of 24 years. A succession of roommates and boyfriends has joined the ranks of reluctant newt aficionados.

Such resilience may reassure the Republicans who are now pondering whether to finally bet the electoral farm on their Newt. But newts have one other notable attribute: They’re the most toxic of all amphibians; that’s what makes them so brazen, kind of like Newts. When confronted by predators, they rear back to display their colorful undersides (hence “fire belly”) in warning: “Eat this and die.” Pacific Northwest newts, caught up in an evolutionary arms race with toxin-resistant garter snakes, have become particularly poisonous. One unconfirmed tale has it that a logger in Forks bet his buddies at the tavern he could eat a newt. He never got to finish his beer.

Other amphibians have toxins in their skin, but newts are poisonous all the way through. That’s one more thing the party faithful might want to consider.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.