To Renew America
Among the personalities and books and events that have “influenced” or “changed” or “left an indelible impression on” the thinking of the Hon. Newton Leroy Gingrich (R-Ga.), the current Speaker of the House of Representatives and the author of 1945 and To Renew America, are, by his own accounts, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Isaac Asimov, Alexis de Tocqueville, Tom Clancy, Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent, Robert Walpole, William Gladstone, Gordon Wood, Peter Drucker, Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, the “Two Cultures” lectures of C.P. Snow (the lesson here for the Speaker was that “if you’re capable of being glib and verbal, the odds are you have no idea what you’re talking about but it sounds good, whereas if you know a great deal of what you’re saying the odds are you can’t get on a talk show because nobody can understand you”), Adam Smith, Zen and the Art of Archery, “the great leader of Coca-Cola for many years, Woodruff,” an Omaha entrepreneur named Herman Cain (“who’s the head of Godfather Pizza, he’s an African-American who was born in Atlanta and his father was Woodruff’s chauffeur”), Ray Kroc’s Grinding It Out, and Johan Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages.
There were also: Daryl Conner’s Managing at the Speed of Change, Sam Walton’s Made in America, Stephen R. Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, The 1913 Girl Scout Handbook, Alcoholics Anonymous’s One Day at a Time, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln (“even though I’m not a great fan of Vidal”), the Sidney Pollack/Robert Redford motion picture Jeremiah Johnson (“a great film and a useful introduction to a real authentic American”), commercial overbuilding in the sunbelt (“I was first struck by this American passion for avoiding the lessons of history when I watched the Atlanta real estate boom of the early 1970s”), the science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, the business consultant W. Edwards Deming (“Quality as Defined by Deming” is Pillar Five of Gingrich’s Five Pillars of American Civilization), and, famously, the Tofflers, Alvin and Heidi, “important commentators on the human condition” and “dear friends” as well.
It was these and other influences that gave Mr. Gingrich what Dick Williams, an Atlanta newspaperman and the author of Newt!, calls “an intellectual base that has been developing since he was in high school, collecting quotes and ideas on scraps of paper stored in shoeboxes.” It was in turn this collection of quotes and ideas on scraps of paper stored in shoeboxes (a classmate estimated that Mr. Gingrich had fifty such boxes, for use “in class and in politics”) that led in 1984 to Mr. Gingrich’s Window of Opportunity (described in its preface by Jerry Pournelle as “a detailed blueprint, a practical program that not only proves that we can all get rich, but shows how”); in 1993 to the televised “Renewing American Civilization” lectures that Mr. Gingrich now delivers from Reinhardt College in Waleska, Georgia; and most recently to his current 1945 and To Renew America.
1945 is a fairly primitive example of the kind of speculative fiction known as “alternate history,” the premise being that Hitler spent “several weeks in a coma” after a plane crash on December 6, 1941, and so did not declare war on the United States. Now, in 1945, fully recovered, Hitler is poised to launch Operation Arminius, a manifold effort to seize England (which in 1943 had “agreed to a remarkably lenient armistice” after the collapse of the Churchill government) and cripple the ability of the United States to respond by sinking its fleet and knocking out Oak Ridge, where the development of the atomic bomb is still underway. “Kill every scientist at this Oak Ridge and we kill their atomic program,” the German officer charged with the Oak Ridge infiltration and destruction declares. “That is why the Führer is willing to go to war to stop the Americans before they beat us to this truly ultimate weapon.” In the marginally less tedious To Renew America, the book for which HarperCollins originally offered $4.5 million, Mr. Gingrich recycles familiar themes from both Window of Opportunity and his “Renewing American Civilization” lectures as he endeavors to “restore our historic principles,” most recently evidenced, as he sees it, in “the certainty and convictions of World War II and the Cold War.”
To complain that Mr. Gingrich’s thinking is “schematic,” as some have, seems not exactly to describe the problem, which is that the “scheme,” as revealed in his writing and in his lectures, remains so largely occult. The videotaped “Renewing American Civilization” lecture in which Mr. Gingrich discusses “The Historic Lessons of American Civilization,” which is Pillar One of The Five Pillars of American Civilization, offers, for example, clips from several television movies and documentaries about the Civil War, but not much clue about why the lessons of American civilization might be “historic,” and no clue at all why the remaining four Pillars of American Civilization (“Personal Strength,” “Entrepreneurial Free Enterprise,” “The Spirit of Invention and Discovery,” and “Quality as Defined by Deming”) might not be more clearly seen as subsections of Pillar One, or lessons of civilization. Similarly, the attempt to track from one to five through Mr. Gingrich’s “Five Reasons for Studying American History” (“One: History is a collective memory”; “Two: American history is the history of our civilization”; “Three: There is an American exceptionalism that can best be understood through history”; “Four: History is a resource to be learned from and used”; and “Five: There are techniques that can help you learn problem-solving from historic experience”) leaves the tracker fretful, uneasy, uncertain just whose synapses are misfiring.
What has lent Mr. Gingrich’s written and spoken work, or, as he calls it, his “teaching,” the casual semblance of being based on some plain-spoken substance, some rough-hewn horse sense, is that most of what he says has reached us in outline form, with topic points capitalized (the capitalization has been restrained in the more conventionally edited To Renew America) and systematically, if inappositely, numbered. There were “Seven key aspects” and “Nine vision-level principles” of “Personal Strength” (Pillar Two of American Civilization), there were “Five core principles” of “Quality as Defined by Deming” (Pillar Five), there were “Three Big Concepts” of “Entrepreneurial Free Enterprise” (Pillar Three). There were also, still under Pillar Three, “Five Enemies of Entrepreneurial Free Enterprise” (“Bureaucracy,” “Credentialing,” “Taxation,” “Litigation,” and “Regulation”), which would have been identical to Pillar Four’s “Seven welfare state cripplers of progress” had the latter not folded in “Centralization,” “Anti-progress Cultural Attitude,” and “Ignorance.”
In Window of Opportunity, Mr. Gingrich advised us that “the great force changing our world is a synergism of essentially six parts,” and offered “five simple steps to a bold future.” On the health-care question, Mr. Gingrich posited “eight areas of necessary change.” On the issue of arms control, he saw “seven imperatives that will help the free world survive in the age of nuclear weapons.” Down a few paragraphs the seven imperatives gave way to “two initiatives,” then to “three broad strategic options for the next generation,” and finally, within the scan of the eye, to “six realistic goals which would increase our children’s chances of living in a world without nuclear war.”
“Outlining” or “listing” remains a favored analytical technique among the management and motivational professionals whose approach Mr. Gingrich has so messianically adopted (balancing the budget and “finding a way to truly replace the current welfare state with an opportunity society” could both be done by the year 2002, he advised the Congress on the occasion of his swearing-in as Speaker, “if we apply the principles of Edwards Deming and Peter Drucker”); yet few of his own “areas” and “imperatives” and “initiatives,” his “steps” and “options” and “goals,” actually advance, on examination, the discourse. The seventh of the seven steps necessary to solve the drug problem, as outlined in To Renew America, calls for the government to “intensify our intelligence efforts against drug lords across the planet and help foreign governments to trap them,” in other words exactly what both the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Southern Command have been doing for some years now. No piety can long escape inclusion in one or another of Mr. Gingrich’s five or four or eleven steps: another of the seven steps necessary to solve the drug problem calls for the “reinvigoration” of Mrs. Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.
The first of the “eight areas of necessary change” in our health-care system calls for “focusing on preventive medicine and good health,” which meant, in Window of Opportunity, offering Medicare recipients $500 for not going to the doctor. To Renew America expands this notion to “employee insurance plans” that provide each employee with a $3,000 “Medisave” account to spend on medical care or receive as a year-end bonus, i.e., a way of phasing out the concept of medical insurance by calling the phaseout “Medisave.” Mr. Gingrich cites the “very large savings in medical expenses” achieved through Medisave accounts by the Golden Rule Insurance Company, the executives and employees of which happen to have put their savings to work, during the several years since Mr. Gingrich’s ascendance into the national eye, by donating $42,510 to his campaign committee, $117,076 to his GOPAC, an undisclosed amount to the foundation that sponsors his lectures, and $523,775 to the Republican Party. The Golden Rule Insurance Company also sponsors The Progress Report, the call-in show Mr. Gingrich co-hosts on National Empowerment Television. “Linking their contributions to performance,” Mr. Gingrich told us in Window of Opportunity, was “the first step for average Americans in learning to organize and systematize their new relationship with elected politicians.”
Those arguments in To Renew America not immediately suggestive of ethical conflict tend to speed headlong into another kind of collision. We have, according to Mr. Gingrich, “an absolute obligation to minimize damage to the natural world,” a “moral obligation to take care of the ecosystem,” but since this collides with his wish to lift the “ridiculous burden” of “environmental regulations hatched in Washington,” the fulfillment of our moral obligation to take care of the ecosystem is left to a constituent in Mr. Gingrich’s district, Linda Bavaro, who turns two-liter Coca-Cola bottles into T-shirts, which she sells at Disney World. “Linda,” Mr. Gingrich notes, “has a good chance of doing well financially by doing good environmentally. That is how a healthy free market in a free country ought to work.”
Even Mr. Gingrich’s most unexceptionable arguments can take these unpredictable detours. The “Third Wave Information Age” offers “potential for enormous improvement in the lifestyle choices of most Americans,” opportunities for “continuous, lifelong learning” that can enable the displaced or downsized to operate “outside corporate structures and hierarchies in the nooks and crannies that the Information Revolution creates” (so far so good), but here is the particular cranny of the Information Revolution into which Mr. Gingrich skids: