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The Teachings of Speaker Gingrich

Say you want to learn batik because a new craft shop has opened at the mall and the owner has told you she will sell some of your work. First, you check in at the “batik station” on the Internet, which gives you a list of recommendations. … You may get a list of recommended video or audio tapes that can be delivered to your door the next day by Federal Express. You may prefer a more personal learning system and seek an apprenticeship with the nearest batik master. … In less than twenty-four hours, you have launched yourself on a new profession.

Similarly, what begins in To Renew America as a rational if predictable discussion of “New Frontiers in Science, Space, and the Oceans” takes this sudden turn: “Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park? … Wouldn’t that be one of the most spectacular accomplishments of human history? What if we could bring back extinct species?” A few pages further into “New Frontiers in Science, Space, and the Oceans,” we are careering into “honeymoons in space” (“imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attractions”), a notion first floated in Window of Opportunity, in that instance as an illustration of how entrepreneurial enterprise could lead to job creation in one’s own district: “One reason I am convinced space travel will be a growth industry is because I represent the Atlanta airport, which provides 35,000 aviation-related jobs in the Atlanta area.”

The packaging of space honeymoons and recycled two-liter Coca-Cola bottles is the kind of specific that actually engages Mr. Gingrich: absent an idea that can be sold at Disney World, he has tended to lose interest. Asked, during an appearance this summer at the 92nd Street YMHA in New York, what he would have done early on about Bosnia, Mr. Gingrich essayed “creating a Balkan-wide development zone.” The somewhat anticlimactic ninth of his nine Principles of Self-Government for an Opportunity Society was this: “Finally, try, try again. Self-government is an arduous, demanding task on which the survival of freedom depends.” Many of the proposals in Window of Opportunity and To Renew America fritter out this way, dwindle into the perfunctory, as if the proposer’s attention had already hopped on. Mr. Gingrich, we are told by Dick Williams, manages his day in fifteen-minute increments, a lesson learned from Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive. Mr. Gingrich, he himself tells us, believes in dedicating as many as possible of those fifteen-minute increments to reading, particularly to the reading of biography, which is seen to offer direct personal benefit: “I don’t care what you want to be. If you want to get rich, read the biographies of people who got rich. If you want to be a famous entertainer, read the biographies of people who got to be famous entertainers.”

Reading can provide not only this kind of intravenous inspiration but also “quotes,” what Forbes used to call “Thoughts on the Business of Life,” rhetorical backup to be plucked from the shoebox and deployed. “I was very struck this morning by something Bill Emerson used,” Mr. Gingrich noted at his swearing-in as Speaker. “It’s a fairly famous quote of Benjamin Franklin.” Mr. Gingrich tends to weigh whatever he does on this scale of strategic applicability and immediate usefulness: note that the fourth and fifth, or clinching, Reasons for Studying American History are “History is a resource to be learned from and used” and “There are techniques that can help you learn problem-solving from historic experience.”

A considerable amount of what Mr. Gingrich says has never borne extended study. There was the dispiriting view of the future as a kind of extended Delta hub, where “each news magazine would have a section devoted to the week’s news from space” and from which we would “flow out to the Hiltons and Marriotts of the solar system, and mankind will have permanently broken free of the planet.” There were the doubtful tales offered in evidence of the point at hand, the “personalization” (a key Gingrich concept) that did not quite add up. Mr. Gingrich learned that America was “in transition from one type of economy and lifestyle to another” from reading Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity and John Naisbett’s Megatrends, but the truth of this came home when he was “shocked to discover” that he could telephone his oldest daughter on her junior year abroad (the fact that his oldest daughter was born in 1963 would seem to place this discovery in 1982 or 1983) “by first dialing the 001 code for the international telephone computer, then the code for France, then the area code for the region near Paris, and finally the code for my daughter’s telephone.”

This was not a mind that could be productively engaged on its own terms. There was the casual relationship to accuracy, the spellings and names and ideas seized, in the irresistible momentum of Mr. Gingrich’s outlining, in mid-flight. In Window of Opportunity and in the lectures, Peter Drucker’s The Age of Discontinuity became The Age of Discontinuities. Garry Wills’s Inventing America became “Gary Will’s Discovering America,” Gordon Wood became Gordon Woods. To Renew America shows evidence of professional copy editing, but it also defines what it calls “situational ethics” and “deconstructionism” as interchangeable terms for “the belief that there are no general rules of behavior.” Alexis de Tocqueville is seen as a kind of visiting booster, whose privilege it was to “inform the world that ‘Democracy in America’ worked,” and also, even more peculiarly, as an exemplar of American culture: “From the Jamestown colony and the Pilgrims, through de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, up to the Norman Rockwell paintings of the 1940s and 1950s, there was a clear sense of what it meant to be an American.”

There was and is still the flirtation with the millennial, the almost astral insistence on the significance of specific but intrinsically meaningless dates and numbers. The “discontinuity” in American history (Peter Drucker again) lasted, according to Mr. Gingrich, from exactly 1965 to exactly 1994: “And what’s been happening is that from 1965 to 1994, that America went off on the wrong track. Now that’s an important distinction.” “A year which ends in three zeroes is a rare thing indeed,” he declared in Window of Opportunity. “We’re starting the 104th Congress,” he said at his swearing-in last January. “I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about the concept: 208 years.”

This inclination toward the pointlessly specific (we have here a man who once estimated the odds on the survival of his second marriage at “53 to 47”) is coupled with a tic to inflate what is actually specific into a general principle, a big concept. The cherry blossoms in Washington, he advised his constituents in 1984, remind us that “there’s a rhythm and cycle to life. Winter goes and spring comes.” Forrest Gump became for Mr. Gingrich “a reaffirmation that the counterculture destroys human beings and basic values.” That Star Wars made more money than The Right Stuff instructs us that “we have allowed bureaucracies to dominate too many of our scientific adventures.” In the absence of anything specific to either seize or inflate, he tends to spin perilously out of syntactical orbit:

…I think if you will consider for a second—and this is part of why I wanted to pick up on the concept of “virtualness”—if you think about the notion that the great challenge of our lifetime is first to imagine a future that is worth spending our lives getting to, then because of the technologies and the capabilities we have today to get it up to sort of a virtual state, whether that’s done in terms of actual levels of sophistication or whether it’s just done in your mind, most studies of leadership argue that leaders actually are acting out past decisions, that part of the reason you get certainty in great leaders is that they have already thoroughly envisioned the achievement and now it’s just a matter of implementation. And so it’s very different. So in a sense, virtuality at the mental level is something I think you’d find in most leadership over historical periods.

2.

The real substance of Mr. Gingrich’s political presence derives from his skill at massaging exhaustively researched voter preferences and prejudices into matters of lonely principle. The positions he takes are acutely tuned to the unexamined fears and resentments of large numbers of Americans, yet he stands, in his rhetoric, alone, opposed by “the system,” by “Washington,” by “the liberal elite,” by “the East Coast elite” (not by accident does a mention of Harvard in 1945 provoke the sympathetic President’s antipathy to “East Coast snobbery and intellectual hauteur”), or simply by an unspecified “they.” “I kind of live on the edge,” Mr. Gingrich told Dick Williams. “I push the system.” When, in a famous GOPAC memo, Mr. Gingrich advised Republican candidates to characterize Democrats with the words “decay,” “sick,” “pathetic,” “stagnation,” “corrupt,” “waste,” and “traitors,” and Republicans with the words “share,” “change,” “truth,” “moral,” “courage,” “family,” “peace,” and “duty,” each word had been tested and oiled in focus groups to function in what the memo called “Language, a Key Mechanism of Control.”

The 1994 Contract with America was packaged as, and to a defeating extent accepted even by its opponents as, a “bold agenda” (opponents said too bold, and argued only to split the difference), a “vision for America’s future” (opponents rushed to share the vision, and argued only the means), yet each of its ten items derived from and was later refined in focus groups run by Frank Luntz, who did the 1992 campaign polling first for Pat Buchanan and then for Ross Perot. “The Contract with America was specifically designed to appeal to the swing Perot voter who hates partisan politics,” Mr. Gingrich said this summer during his YMHA appearance. “The ten points basically selected themselves as deeply felt desires of the American people,” is his somewhat cryptic version of this process in To Renew America. “It can literally be said that the Contract with America grew out of our conversations with the American people and out of our basic conservative values.”

The preferences and attitudes discovered through opinion research tend to be, no matter who is paying for the research, fairly consistent. A majority of American voters are displeased with the current welfare system, believe that affirmative action has been carried too far, are opposed to crime and in favor of “opportunity.” They say this to researchers working for Republican candidates and they also say it to researchers working for Democratic candidates. Which was why, of course, anyone who knew how to count, anyone whose own researcher happened to be having identical conversations with the American people, was left, up against the Contract with America, with nowhere to stand. “Now what you’ve got in this city is a simple principle,” Mr. Gingrich told the Republican National Committee in January. “I am a genuine revolutionary; they are the genuine reactionaries. We are going to change their world; they will do anything to stop us. They will use any tool—there is no grotesquerie, no distortion, no dishonesty too great for them to come after us.” He described himself to Fred Barnes as “the leading revolutionary in the country. I’m trying to replace the welfare state and the counterculture and the old establishment with a system of opportunity and entrepreneurship and classic American civilization.”

What seems grandiose melts down, on the floor, to business as usual. “Replacing the welfare state” turned out to mean, with the passage in the House of the Personal Responsibility and Senior Citizens Fairness Acts, phasing out a $16 billion welfare program for the poor (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) in order to expand, by lifting the level of its earnings test, what was already a $335 billion welfare program for the middle class, Social Security. The unfairness (Frank Luntz has isolated “fairness” and “unfairness” as hot words) of applying any earnings test at all to Social Security benefits was an issue seized early by Mr. Gingrich, who illustrated it in Window of Opportunity with another doubtful tale, this one featuring “Warren, a retiree” who “wanted to do something to keep his mind and body busy and to contribute to the community and world he loves” but was forced to give up selling his contribution of choice, which happened to be scrimshaw, when the Social Security Administration threatened to reduce, or, in Mr. Gingrich’s telling, “cut off,” his benefits. “Politics,” Mr. Gingrich instructed Dan Balz and Charles R. Babcock of The Washington Post when they suggested that this preference for what the speaker calls “sixty-five percent issues” could be construed as pandering to public opinion, “is about public opinion and gathering public support. It’s like saying, isn’t it pandering for Wal-Mart to stock everything people want to buy.”

3.

I teach a course which is an outline of my thoughts at 51 years of age, based on everything I’ve experienced, which is, frankly, rather more than most tenured faculty,” Mr. Gingrich told The New York Times in January. “I’m not credentialed as a bureaucratic academic. I haven’t written 22 books that are meaningless.” What details we have about the formative experience of the current speaker, who was born Newton Leroy McPherson and took the surname of his mother’s second husband, describe a familiar postwar history, one not dissimilar from that of the current President, who was born William Jefferson Blythe and took the surname of his mother’s second husband. Each was the adored first-born son of a mother left largely, in the economic and social dislocations that transformed provincial America during and immediately after World War II, to her own devices. Each was farmed out to relatives while the mother earned a living. Each appears to have reached adolescence firm in the conviction that these were the make-or-break years, that the point of the exercise was to assert, win over, overcome.

The two relied on different means to this end, but the instinctive technique of each derived from the literature of personal improvement, effective self-presentation, salesmanship, five simple steps. Mr. Clinton, with his considerable personal magnetism, kept extensive lists of people he had met and, when the time arrived, on whom he could call. In the case of Mr. Gingrich, who after his mother remarried was repeatedly uprooted and moved from one army post to another, Kansas to France to Germany to Georgia, such social skills remained undeveloped, forcing him back on his reading, his self-education, his shoe-boxes. He recalled being given an article when he was young. “It was about Lincoln’s five defeats. I carried it in my wallet for years.” At sixteen, en route from Stuttgart to Fort Benning, he concluded “that there was no moral choice except to immerse myself in the process of learning how to lead and how to be effective.” His stepfather gave him a set of the Encyclopedia Americana, and he read it every night. At Baker High School near Fort Benning he yielded to the Southern pressure to play sports, but was sidelined by headaches. His Democratic opponent in 1994 referred to him as a “wuss,” and as “the guy who won the science project.”

I think I was very lonely and very driven,” Mr. Gingrich told Dick Williams. “If you decide in your freshman year of high school that your job is to spend your lifetime trying to change the future of your people, you’re probably fairly weird.” The defense he adopted was the persona of “class brain” (his classmates voted him “Most Intellectual”), the one with the pens and slide rule in his shirt pocket, the one who could spark the debating society, tie for highest score in the county on the National Merit Scholarship test, make a strategic detour around his lack of aptitude for high-school cool by tutoring the school beauty queen and not-quite-secretly dating the geometry teacher. As a freshman at Emory he married the geometry teacher and co-founded the Emory Young Republican Club. As a graduate student at Tulane he organized a week-long protest against administration censorship of the college paper, discovered Alvin Toffler, and taught a non-credit class on The Year 2000.

He took for himself, in other words, the ritualized role of breaker of new ground, marcher to a different drummer, which happens to be the cast of mind in which speculative fiction finds its most tenacious hold. What if one or another event had not occurred, what if one or another historical figure had remained unborn, languished in obscurity, taken another turn: the contemplation of such questions has reliably occupied the different drummers of American secondary education. The impulse is anti-theological, which translates, for these readers, into thrilling iconoclasm: in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy, according to Mr. Gingrich, “the Catholic Church’s role in maintaining civilized knowledge through the Dark and Middle Ages is played by a secular group of intellectuals called ‘The Foundation.’ ” The tendency is to see history as random, accidental, the sum of its own events and personalities: Isaac Asimov, Mr. Gingrich notes, “did not believe in a mechanistic world. Instead, to Asimov, human beings always hold their fate in their own hands.”

It was this high-school reading of Isaac Asimov, Mr. Gingrich tells us in To Renew America, that first “focused my attention on the fate of civilizations. I came to realize that, while most people were immersed in day-to-day activities, daily behavior actually takes place within a much larger context of constantly changing global forces.” Mr. Gingrich is frequently and often deprecatingly described as a “futurist,” but even as he talks about those “constantly changing global forces,” about a transformation “so large and historic that it can be compared with only two other great eras of human history—the Agricultural Revolution and the Industrial Revolution,” his view of the future is a view of 1955, factory-loaded with Year 2000 extras. To Renew America asks us to “imagine a morning in just a decade or so”:

You wake up to a wall-size, high-definition television showing surf off Maui. (This is my favorite island—you can pick your own scene.) You walk or jog or do Stairmaster while catching up on the morning news and beginning to review your day’s schedule. Your home office is filled with communications devices, so you can ignore rush-hour traffic. … When you are sick, you sit in your diagnostic chair and communicate with the local health clinic. Sensors take your blood pressure, analyze a blood sample, or do throat cultures. The results are quickly relayed to health aides, who make recommendations and prescribe medicine. … If you need a specialist, a databank at your fingertips gives you a wide range of choices based on cost, reputation, and outcome patterns. You can choose knowledgeably which risk you want to take and what price you want to pay.

The “diagnostic chair,” or “personalized health chair,” which could also be programmed to “monitor your diet over time and change recipes to minimize boredom while achieving the desired nutritional effect,” appeared first in Window of Opportunity, which outlined a future in which we or our descendants would also use computer technology to correct golf swings, provide tax and IRA advice, and provide data on “literally thousands of vacation, recreation, and education opportunities,” for example the Ocmulgee Indian Mounds Park in Macon, Georgia, with its “splendid natural walk area, a beautiful collection of ancient Indian ceremonial mounds, and fine museum on the history of the area from 900 AD to the present.” For any among us whose view of the future might have been somewhat more forbidding or interesting (no Maui, no Macon, the IRAs all gone bust), Mr. Gingrich would recommend first the reading of science fiction, since “a generation that learns its magic from Tom Swift or Jules Verne has a much more optimistic outlook than one that is constantly being told that the planet is dying and that everything humanity is doing is wrong.”

If wishes were horses, as they said in the generation that learned its magic from Tom Swift or Jules Verne. We hear in this the drone of the small-town autodidact, the garrulous bore in the courthouse square: to know that large numbers of Americans are concerned about getting adequate medical care is one thing; to give them the willies by talking about their “health chairs” is altogether another. There is about these dismal reductions something disarming and poignant, a solitary neediness, a dogged determination to shine in public that leads Mr. Gingrich to reveal to us, again and again, what his own interests dictate that we should not see. He concludes To Renew America with a “personalization” of his concern for voter concerns, an account of how he and his second wife, Marianne, spent the Christmas before he became Speaker in Leetonia. Ohio, “a wonderful small town that is like a scene from a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover.”

For much of this account Mr. Gingrich remains well within the secured territory of the Taking Back Our Streets and American Dream Restoration Acts. He expresses concern for Marianne’s eighty-year-old mother, who “worked and saved all her life” but now worries about “the reports that Medicare will go bankrupt by 2002.” He worries that his eight-year-old nephew, Sean, “cannot walk around Youngstown the way I once wandered the streets of Harrisburg.” He wonders how Marianne’s sister and her husband will manage putting their boys, Jon and Mark, through college.

Then, midway through this tuned and calculated Christmas reverie, Mr. Gingrich drops, abruptly and inexplicably, through the ice, off message: “At heart,” he dismayingly confides, “I am still a happy four-year-old who gets up every morning hoping to find a cookie that friends or relatives may have left for me somewhere.” This cookie is worrisome: Was it forgotten? Hidden? Why would they hide it? Where are they? Are they asleep, out, absentee friends, deadbeat relatives? The cookie was the treat and leaving is the trick? What we get from these problematic detours and revelations, from the cookies and the health chairs and the high-resolution views of Maui, from the Ten Steps and the Five Pillars and the thirty gigabytes to an improved golf swing, is a shadow of something unexplained, a scent of failure, which remains one reason why, in a country made even more uncomfortable by losers than Mr. Gingrich claims to be, personal popularity among large numbers of voters may continue to elude him.

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