NEWT GINGRICH HAS ALWAYS loved zoos. As a youngster growing up in Harrisburg, Pa., he once tried to create one in his own backyard. So it was only natural that while in Chicago last week to attend the annual American Booksellers Association convention, Gingrich took time out for some animal visitation. Indeed, what was supposed to be a one-hour trip to the zoo in suburban Brookfield stretched to nearly 5 hours as the Speaker of the House of Representatives petted the wombats, admired some okapis and fed a baby fruit bat named Pups. But the highlight for Gingrich was a chance to frolic with the aardvarks. "For me it was one of those fabulous days," says Gingrich. "Having the aardvarks sniff around my sneakers was very weird, but it was fun."

Nor did the fun—or the weirdness—stop there. The next day it was Gingrich himself who was on display at the booksellers convention. By tradition a frenzied affair attended by thousands of book merchants, publishers, agents and authors, the ABA fete was notable this year for its political star power. In addition to Gingrich, 52, who spent an hour wandering among the hundreds of booths, shaking hands and signing autographs, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell, 58, was there hawking his new volume of memoirs, My American Journey, and perhaps floating a few trial balloons for his perennially bruited-about presidential candidacy. Meanwhile, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton was on hand for her upcoming book on children's issues—and to needle her husband's political rivals a bit.

Some politicians, of course, were there only to sell books. Illinois Sen. Paul Simon signed autographs for his new book, Freedom's Champion: Elijah Lovejoy, a biography of a 19th-century journalist. And former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, now a self-declared mystery writer, flogged his first novel, Murder at City Hall (which, apparently, is not about his 12 years in office). Non-politicians were on hand, too, including actress-author janet Leigh, TV psychologist Dr. Ruth—and even Dwayne Hickman of Dobie Gillis TV fame.

Ostensibly, Gingrich showed up in Chicago to promote two works of non-fiction. The first, To Renew America, will hit the bookstores soon, while the other, an as-yet-untitled volume of essays on politics, will arrive this fall. But Gingrich is not waiting that long to start a sales push. In August he will launch a 25-city book tour that could be confused with a presidential campaign and probably will be.

So where does one of the busiest people in America find the time for all this literary effort? Gingrich says he crashed out a 140,000-word draft of Renew on his laptop computer in early April. Since then, editors have trimmed the opus, which includes chapters on health care, drugs, education, crime and technology, to roughly 80,000 words. Perhaps even more remarkable, Gingrich has finished a novel (with coauthor William Forstchen) called 1945, which supposes Hitler winning the war in Europe and trying to steal the atomic secrets of the Manhattan Project. "This is a lark," Gingrich says of his fiction writing. "This is my hobby, my alternative to playing golf."

At the convention, the novel, for which Gingrich and Forstchen received a $30,000 advance from Baen and which is due in stores next month, was generating considerable buzz—primarily for its curio value. A classic potboiler, an early version of the book contained at least one raunchy, if slightly stilted, sex scene: "[He] was overwhelmed by the sight of her, the shameless pleasure she takes in her own body. Suddenly the pouting sex kitten gave way to Diana the Huntress. She rolled onto him and somehow was sitting athwart his chest, her knees pinning his shoulders. 'Tell me, or I'll make you do terrible things...' "

Like, say, kiss a Democrat. (Actually, some of the kinky lines have since been deleted.) And speaking of politics, it was perhaps no coincidence that on the eve of the convention, Bob Dole, the front-running GOP presidential hopeful, took a swipe at Gingrich for the steamy subject matter. "I don't particularly care for it.... It's troubling to me," Dole, 71, said on NBC's Meet the Press. "Maybe it's not troubling to Newt Gingrich."

Gingrich's reception at the convention was somewhat mixed. At one point at the start of his speech, a handful of protesters began to heckle him and his Contract with America. Gingrich remained unruffled. Once the dissidents were rousted from the hall by security guards, he tried to woo his somewhat skeptical audience by promising to donate all the proceeds from book signings during his tour to a program for fighting illiteracy. Ultimately even some of those who are put off by his politics acknowledged that the Speaker is not without his appeal. "He's extraordinarily charismatic," says Helen Kerr, owner of the Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Mont. "With the other Republican presidential candidates so ineffective and unattractive, they'll probably end up with him."

In February, Gingrich announced that he would not be making a bid for the White House in 1996. But in recent weeks, as Dole and other Republican contenders failed to stir much excitement, Gingrich failed to reaffirm that declaration as unequivocally as he might have. Then he announced that he would be making a little three-day swing through—where else?—New Hampshire, from June 9 to June 12. Gingrich gently tried to tamp down speculation about the trip, but 200 reporters signed up to tag along with him anyway.

When the issue of the Presidency came up in Chicago, he simply flashed a noncommittal grin, a response he acknowledges does have its drawbacks. "It means I look like an aging male Mona Lisa," he sighs, "with just sort of a winsome smile." At the same time, though, Gingrich was candid about his reasons for being coy. "If I rule out running for the Presidency," he says, "I will get 10 percent of the attention to my ideas that I'm going to get in the next five months if I simply leave the tiniest crack of the door open."

Keeping everyone guessing, which may heighten interest in his books, won't hurt his finances either. Originally, Gingrich was to receive an advance of $4.5 million from publisher HarperCollins for his nonfiction. In the face of sharp criticism over the deal, generated largely by the fact that HarperCollins is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose business empire could be affected by congressional legislation, Gingrich gave up his hefty advance in favor of royalties. Thus the Speaker's fortunes are now tied directly to the number of books he can sell.

That is less a concern for Colin Powell, who has already accepted a reported $6.5 million advance from Random House for American Journey. Like Gingrich, though, the retired general arrived in Chicago amid a swirl of questions over his own political plans. And like Gingrich he played cute with his audience. "Everywhere I go people ask me what I'm going to do," Powell said in a speech to the convention. "The answer is"—pause—"you're not going to hear it here today." Powell, who has skirted the issue of whether he is a Republican, a Democrat or independent, insisted that the 23-city book tour he is planning should not be seen as a shadow whistle-stop tour. "I am not looking to create a groundswell," he said. "I'm learning about myself and about the country." Nonetheless, Powell's address, which sounded suspiciously like a stump speech with its references to "hard work," "faith" and his "absolute belief in the promise of America," earned one of the most rousing ovations of the convention.

The First Lady put in only a brief appearance, which in some ways seemed fitting. Though her forthcoming book has a title, It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us, it still has no text. Mrs. Clinton did, however, arrive with some points to make. In a dig at unnamed members of Congress, she remarked she found it "particularly ironic" that those "bemoaning the loss of character in our country would turn a blind eye" to the basic needs of children in the country.

Gingrich insists that he has nothing but the interests of children at heart. Indeed the Speaker, who once wanted to be a paleontologist, says that someday he would like to write an introduction for a children's book on dinosaurs. Powerful creatures engaging in ferocious battles, looking to avoid annihilation and perhaps extinction. It all sounds like a primer for the '96 campaign.

BILL HEWITT
LINDA KRAMER, ELIZABETH AUSTIN and NANCY DREW in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Linda Kramer,
  • Elizabeth Austin,
  • Nancy Drew.