domingo, 29 de abril de 2012
Let’s consult the literature — all 21 books by the self-proclaimed ideas man of politics. (Gingrich cites 23 books on his Web site. We are not counting the Contract With America or the coffee-table book “Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny.”)
When his top campaign staff abandoned him not long ago, Newt Gingrich didn’t seem terribly surprised. “Philosophically, I am very different from normal politicians,” he said. “We have big ideas.”
The “we,” as Gingrich uses it here, is akin to the royal we — it’s what might be called the professorial we, employed when the intellectual and the ideas he generates merge to create an entity too large for a singular personal pronoun. “Over my years in public life,” he writes in his latest book about how to save America, “I have become known as an ‘ideas man.’ ” And we shouldn’t doubt it. As I write, a stack of books tilts Pisa-like on my desk, each volume written by Gingrich and various co-authors. I got out my tape measure the other day and discovered that the stack is precisely 15¼ inches high — a figure that does not include the various revised and expanded editions that I have had Whispernetted into my Kindle, along with the historical novels that Gingrich has published with a co-writer named William R. Forstchen: three fat books on the Civil War, three on World War II and a pair on the Revolutionary War. If I added these to my stack, it would be taller than the mayor of Munchkinland and much heavier.
The books taken together are evidence of mental exertions unimaginable in any other contemporary politician. Professorial affectations are not high on the list of tactics candidates like to use in this age of galloping populism. Within the politico-journalistic combine, Gingrich’s status as an intellectual is accepted as an article of faith — something that everybody just assumes to be true, like man-made climate change or Barack Obama’s stratospheric I.Q. Senator Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma Republican, says Gingrich is “undoubtedly the smartest man I’ve ever met.” Cokie Roberts calls him “a big thinker.” Without irony the Democratic consultant Paul Begala praises his “intellectual heft” and Howard Dean his “intellectual leadership.” Ted Nugent says Gingrich is probably the “smartest guy out there.” So that settles that.
Or does it? I built my stack of Gingrich books because I intended to read every one of them, in chronological order, and I did read them, though my chronological scheme broke down eventually. Aside from the sheer number of words, what is most impressive about the Gingrich corpus is its range of literary form, from confessional to guidebook.
Gingrich’s first book, “Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future,” came out in 1984 and contained the seeds of much of what was to follow. Beneath its cover image — a flag-draped eagle inexplicably threatening the space shuttle — the backbencher Gingrich was identified as chairman of the Congressional Space Caucus, a position that inspired a series of “space cadet” jokes that took years to die. “Window of Opportunity” was co-written by Gingrich’s second wife, Marianne, and a science-fiction writer called David Drake. Anyone who takes seriously the books that politicians claim to write must sooner or later confront the delicate matter of co-authors and ghostwriters, especially when the books serve, as in Gingrich’s case, as intellectual bona fides.
I have no inside knowledge of Gingrich’s work habits as a writer, or co-writer. In 1994, I was asked to help write one of his books, but the offer never went far enough to allow for close observation. There’s no reason to be prissy or censorious on the subject of politicians and their ghostwriters. George Washington had ghostwriters (pretty good ones, too: Hamilton and Madison). Lincoln had his secretaries write some letters for him, including, some historians say, the most famous Lincoln letter of them all, to the bereaved Mrs. Bixby. And despite a long parade of co-authors — historians, novelists, policy experts, journalists, even family members — Gingrich’s books show a remarkable consistency from one to the next. His contribution to the books that bear his name must be substantial — certainly greater than that of Charles Barkley, who once admitted he hadn’t read his autobiography. (No one else did, either.) Gingrich’s books are Gingrich’s books.
The ghosts for that first book served him unevenly. They got him in metaphor trouble from the first sentence. “We stand at a crossroads between two diverse futures,” he wrote. This crossroads, it transpired, faced an open window. That would be the window of vulnerability, which is widening. Three paragraphs later, the crossroads, perhaps swiveling on a Lazy Susan, is suddenly facing another window, also open. The important point, Gingrich writes, is that this window of opportunity is about to slam shut. And if it does? “We stand on the brink of a world of violence almost beyond our imagination.”
Reading the Gingrich catalog, you get used to intimations — or are they threats? — of Armageddon. Windows are slamming shut, or are just about to, all over the place, all the time. “Time is running out,” he wrote toward the end of “Window of Opportunity,” 27 years ago. It’s no wonder that Washington thinks he’s so smart: Gingrich was panicky before panicky was cool. The political class runs on his kind of excitement, as one crisis of the century succeeds another, week by week. Politics on its own terms is so boring — decades of the same issues, the same interests, the same charges of heartlessness against Republicans and of profligacy against Democrats — that attention has to be stoked by artificial means.
Gingrich is better than anyone in the capital at arousing interest and maintaining the capacity to surprise. Open one of his books at random, and who knows what you’ll find? “Congressman Bob Walker of Pennsylvania has been exploring the possible benefits of weightlessness to people currently restricted to wheelchairs.” (He has?) He is mad for adjectives: stunning, grotesque, enormous. His verbs get goosed, too, adverbially: remarkably, dramatically. The intensifiers are part of what Gingrich in a later book called “my usual boyish exuberance.” In his books the exuberance works as a stay against the approaching cataclysm.
After escaping the crossroads through the window, the reader follows the first chapter of this first book as it rushes into a discussion of the sclerotic technology of the welfare state circa 1984, the lengthening American life span, the futurist Alvin Toffler, space tourism, newfangled telephones, organic farming, the exercise boom, the return of apprenticeships, the decentralization of higher education, the rise of Methodism in Britain and the Third Great Awakening in America, Disraeli’s kinky sexual arrangements before he cleaned up his act, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, historical revisionism, Idi Amin, Jimmy Carter’s bungling of the Ayatollah, the future of Gabon and his, Gingrich’s, daughter’s year off in France.
When you come up for air, you notice you’re only on Page 39, with 233 pages still to come.
In “Window of Opportunity,” Gingrich introduced himself as a futurist, a role he has played off and on throughout his career. There are problems inherent in futurism, most of them involving the future, which the futurist is obliged to predict (it’s his job) and which seldom cooperates as he would hope. Gingrich has called some and missed some. In 1984, he saw more clearly than most that computers would touch every aspect of commercial and private life, but nobody any longer wants to build “a large array of mirrors [that] could affect the earth’s climate,” warming it up so farmers could extend the growing season.
Gingrich’s faith in technology, as his books express it, is total, undimmed by potential misfirings. His artless belief in gadgetry and the power of human ingenuity, his inexhaustible curiosity and magpie gathering of unexpected facts (did you know Ray Kroc gave his autobiography the unappetizing title “Grinding It Out”?), makes his first book the most winning of them all. Even the polemics against the bureaucrats and liberals and other opponents of progress are mild compared to what we’ve got used to in the intervening decades.
“It is not their fault,” he writes empathetically. “They are simply ignorant.”
Stupid, not evil: this is the kind of concession not often found in subsequent books. After “Window of Opportunity,” Gingrich lapsed into a prolonged silence, at least as a literary man. As a politician, of course, he was a dervish, and by the time his next book appeared, in 1995, he was universally honored as the architect of one of the century’s great political triumphs, the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives the year before. “To Renew America” was written in the headlong rush that followed Gingrich’s elevation to the speakership and international fame.
Once again America faced a crossroads, though the word itself wasn’t used. “There is virtually no middle ground,” Gingrich wrote. He later concluded: “To renew or to decay. At no time in the history of our great nation has the choice been clearer.” To avert disaster, Gingrich had no choice but to present many numbered lists. In addition to the Six Challenges Facing America — similar to the challenges we faced 11 years before — and the “five basic principles that I believe form the heart of our civilization,” there were the five forces moving us toward worldwide medicine, a seven-step program to reduce drug use, the nine steps we can take immediately to advance the three revolutions in health care and more. The futurism was still there, too: “Honeymoons in space will be the vogue by 2020.”
Meanwhile, his polemics had hardened. “For some psychological reason, liberals are antigun but not anti-violent criminal,” was a typically dubious example. As a former professor (an unpublished one, at West Georgia College), Gingrich wrote about university leftism with all the bitterness of an ex-academic: “Most successful [alumni] get an annual letter saying, in effect, ‘Please give us money so we can hire someone who despises your occupation and will teach your children to have contempt for you.’ What is amazing is the overwhelming meekness of the alumni in accepting this hijacking of their alma mater.”
This is sharp and funny and nearly true, but it’s not a formulation designed to coax the undecided into agreement. “To Renew America” marks the moment that persuasion faded as a primary purpose of political talk and preaching to the choir took over. Having won at last, and confident that the future was safely in his pocket, Gingrich by 1995 no longer saw a reason to persuade anyone and didn’t try. It’s the victor’s prerogative, but it doesn’t give you practice in constructing arguments. And it’s catching. Hence talk radio, and in a few years the blogs; hence Fox News and MSNBC.
Liberals may not have liked this new aggressive tone from conservatives, but they had it coming. At least since the Red Scare of the 1950s, mainstream institutions had viewed ideological conservatism with condescension or contempt, as either a joke or a personality disorder — a series of “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” in Lionel Trilling’s excellent summary. Gingrich’s rhetoric had the ferocity of a backlash. The liberal revulsion toward him obscured how unorthodox — occasionally, how liberal — his conservatism was. The books then and now are full of heresy. He showed a willingness to criticize other Republicans, even Reagan at the height of his popularity. He advocated a health tax on alcohol to discourage drinking — social engineering, it’s called — and imagined government-issued credit cards that would allow citizens to order goods and services directly from the feds. He thought the government should run nutritional programs at grocery stores and give away some foodstuffs free. He was pushing cuts in the defense budget in 1984 and a prototype of President Obama’s cash-for-clunkers program in 1995.
The ultimate problem with Gingrich’s firehose approach to idea-generation wasn’t the ideological cast of the ideas but their practicality. To pluck a couple of trivial examples from the scores of proposals he offers in “To Renew America”: “We should work with every recovery program to develop low-cost detoxification programs.” Terrific, but who’s the “we,” and what would the “work” entail, and how would the cost be lowered? Before you can ask the question, Gingrich has rushed ahead. Because “we need to know more about the environment,” we should “develop a worldwide biological inventory.” Excellent idea, for all I know, but administered how? Paid for by whom? Gingrich’s vagueness was always a problem, but the books show something more: a near-total lack of interest in the political implementation of his grand ideas — a lack of interest, finally, in politics at its most mundane and consequential level.
Gingrich’s inattention to detail is one reason his speakership was so chaotic, as readers of a certain age will recall, and the primary reason he was shunned by his own party after four years with the gavel. “Lessons Learned the Hard Way,” released months before his defenestration, is a more conventional memoir than anything else Gingrich has written, and it was supposed to serve as a mea culpa for his mistakes as Speaker, as well as a bid to regain the loyalty of members who had grown tired of his boyish exuberance. It didn’t work.
Admitting mistakes comes easily to no public man — as memoirs from figures like Bill Clinton and Donald Rumsfeld demonstrate — but in “Lessons Learned,” Gingrich gave it the old West Georgia College try. This didn’t work, either. There’s lots of mea in “Lessons Learned,” but the culpa is all on the other side.
Early in the book, he offers an account of the drafting of the Interstate Transportation Bill of 1997. Most readers, he admits, might think such a story uninteresting. “But in this case most readers would be wrong.” In fact, in this case most readers would be right. The point of the story, though, is that Gingrich handled the transportation bill pretty damn well. Indeed, he handled nearly all his duties pretty well — except for when he worked too hard or cared too deeply or thought too much or trusted too many of the wrong people.
Democrats, for instance. One lesson Gingrich claimed to learn the hard way was, as a chapter title has it, “Don’t Underestimate the Liberals.” As speaker, Gingrich discovered that Republicans are too good for their own — um, good. “The difference between the well-thought-out, unending and no-holds-barred hostility of the left,” he wrote, “and the acquiescent, friendship-seeking nature of many of my Republican colleagues never ceases to amaze me.” Democrats flatter themselves with the mirror image of this fantasy, of course, pretending to be envious of the robotic efficiency of Republicans and the freedom of action allowed them by their utter lack of conscience or shame. Self-awareness is not listed in the catalog of traits required for faithful partisanship. About the true nature of their enemies, however, if about nothing else, professional Republicans and Democrats are both exactly right.
When Gingrich finished his tenure as the “political leader of a grass-roots movement seeking to do nothing less than reshape the federal government along with the political culture of the nation,” he kicked back. Transformational leaders get tired, too. “I found myself at an important turning point in my life” he wrote in “Five Principles for a Successful Life.” “I had to stop and ask myself: . . . How can I live up to my potential and be the best possible version of ‘me’?”
After I closed the cover of “Lessons Learned,” my version of me was deeply fatigued. I abandoned my chronological scheme and began reading through the remaining books without method. As it happens, this is how they seem to have been published, willy-nilly. Once Gingrich’s first post-speaker book appeared, in 2003, the others tumbled out like a litter of kittens. Including co-authored historical novels, Gingrich has published 17 books over the past eight years.
The mental energy and organizational skill required to produce all these collaborative efforts are astounding. They ask a lot of a reader too. I found it useful to divide this part of the corpus into Lesser Gingrich and Greater Gingrich. Lesser Gingrich includes the guidebook, called “Rediscovering God in America” (2006), the book of management advice called “The Art of Transformation” (2006) and the works of straightforward advocacy with a think-tank gloss: “Saving Lives and Saving Money” (2003), about health care reform; “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less” (2007), about energy policy; and “A Contract With the Earth” (2007), about conservation. More comprehensive books survey the political and cultural scene at three-year intervals — “Winning the Future” (2005), “Real Change” (2008) and “To Save America” (2010). They constitute the Greater Gingrich.
Despite these differences, every Gingrich bears the same trademarks and verbal tics and jabs its readers in the ribs with the same sense of urgency. And every Gingrich carries the same theme. “Today we have a horse-and-buggy style of public administration presiding over a nation entering the space-shuttle age,” he wrote in “Window of Opportunity.” “In an era of A.T.M.’s, iPods and eBay” he wrote more than 20 years later, “we have government from the era of quill pens, inkwells and paper ledgers.”
As a result, he wrote in “To Save America,” “we stand at a crossroads: either we will save our country or we will lose it.” “America today,” he announced in “Real Change,” “is at an extraordinary crossroads.” In a revised edition of “Winning the Future,” he phrased our predicament like this: “America is the most energetic, resourceful and innovative nation in the history of mankind. But we are at a crossroads.” Moreover, he said in “Saving Lives and Saving Money,” “we find ourselves at a crossroads.”
The choice between these two roads diverging in a yellow-bellied wood is always stark: a question of “whether the United States as we know it will cease to exist.” If nothing else, the Lesser Gingrich shows the author’s ingenuity in adapting his theme. “Drill Here, Drill Now, Pay Less,” for instance, is aimed at the pure activist. It includes a chart to calculate how much the liberals are making you spend on gas, along with checklists, printed petitions, a membership card, a bumper sticker — everything but a decoder ring. In “The Art of Transformation,” he manages to one-up the usual business-book jargon by compiling an impenetrable lexicon of his own. He shows us an OODA loop, for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, and connects “Islands of Excellence With Invisible Bridges” while “mind mapping” for project planning.
“Moving to the sound of the guns,” he writes, “requires that we are externally rather than internally oriented, so we can hear the guns; understand our antelope” — that’s what he wrote — “so we know if the guns are worth hearing; think through our deep-mid-near goals so we know which guns to respond to.” Senator Coburn needs to get out more.
One of Gingrich’s recent books had the potential to be charming. “Rediscovering God in America” is a walking tour of buildings and monuments in Washington. The point is to demonstrate how previous generations of Americans unabashedly included religious symbols in civic life, in contrast to the picky legalisms and hair-trigger sensitivities of our own era. The book is a collaboration with Callista Gingrich, the wife (“whose support and love have made the adventure of our life together exciting, enjoyable and fulfilling,” Gingrich writes in “To Serve America”) who replaced the second wife, Marianne (“who made it all worthwhile” back in the day of “To Renew America”). Callista is unavoidable in all of Gingrich’s current endeavors. Having married a powerful man and suddenly blossomed in fields in which she earlier showed seemingly no interest or professional skill — writing books, taking photographs, making movies, overseeing her husband’s not-for-profit company — Callista has emerged as the Linda McCartney of the conservative movement.
Her images in the most recent edition of “Rediscovering God in America” are lovely. (Linda was a photographer too.) The entire sepia-toned production is so elegant, that Gingrich’s attacks on the “ruthlessly secular society” in thrall to “a media-academic-legal elite [who find] religious expression frightening and threatening” sound wildly out of place, like a gunshot at afternoon tea.
If Gingrich’s theme is timeless and the enemy unchanging, so is the solution, the same one from 1984. The coming rush of high technology will dismantle the welfare state and provide a replacement that is humane and efficient; it will free the poor from government dependency, take apart a failing educational establishment, relieve the drudgery of industrial labor and provide a steady supply of pleasant jobs, defrock out-of-touch elites in every corner of the ruthlessly secular society, clean up the environment and bequeath to us an America that is “safe, healthy, prosperous and free,” as he wrote in “Winning the Future” and, with slight variation, in most of his other books too. Technology remains the deus ex machina of Gingrich’s vision.
His attraction to it goes beyond the sci-fi enthusiast’s love of gadgetry. As our country’s problems fall before technology’s advance, the need for politics and its drudgery disappears: no fuss over compromise and horse-trading, no grubby catering to commercial interests. Politics is just one more feature of the old order that becomes obsolete. Yet a reader who scans the whole collection from its beginning in “Window of Opportunity” might pause: Wasn’t this supposed to have happened already? The explosion in digital technology that Gingrich foresaw in 1984 has come off, with a bang. And yet still the country hangs in the balance, its condition more dire than ever, its need for a transformational leader never more pressing.
Like most Utopians, Gingrich sees the world in binary terms. Only his alternative future can prevent the cataclysm that has been about to happen for so many years. Muddling through — which is the default option of our constitutional system and the one that most Americans, latently conservative as they are, seem to prefer — never surfaces in the swirling mists of his crystal ball. For all the reciprocated disdain he claims to feel for the establishment in Washington, where he has lived for more than 30 years, he is still its unwitting champion; for without the crises that Gingrich chronically imagines, the establishment would no longer be necessary.
I see I have left little room for Gingrich’s novels. For a Civil War buff, the most interesting of these, and the only ones I read with any care, are the trilogy beginning with “Gettysburg,” continuing with “Grant Comes East” and concluding with “Never Call Retreat.” These are what the trade calls counterfactuals: the authors rewrite the pivotal events of history and then see how the alternative narrative might have played out.
A counterfactual account of history appeals especially to people who are disappointed in the real thing. Settled fact is unsatisfying; history as it occurs seems somehow a cheat. It is true that history hasn’t worked out the way Newt Gingrich envisioned it, and this lends poignancy to the moral of his Civil War trilogy. “This victory was a long way from inevitable,” Ulysses S. Grant says in “Never Call Retreat,” “and every young American ought to learn just how important one man can be. How one man can shape history and, in that moment, save a nation.”
And then, just when my stack had dwindled to nothing and I felt the thrill of liberation, the mail arrived with my preordered copy of Gingrich’s latest book, “A Nation Like No Other.” I thumbed through it. “The election of 2012,” Gingrich writes, “will bring us to an historic crossroads.”
The choice is stark, apparently — as urgent as any in our history.
Andrew Ferguson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and the author of ‘‘Crazy U: One Dad’s Crash Course in Getting His Kid Into College.’’ Editor: Chris Suellentrop (C.Suellentrop-MagGroup@nytimes.com)
Posted by Francisco Augusto Vaz Brasil at 15:31