Goodbye, brave Newtworld
His sweeping visions were a mix of brilliance and banality
By Andrew Ferguson
In the giddy, frenetic days of early 1995, after the Republican Party had taken control of Congress for the first time in four decades, a document circulated among the staff of the new Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. It was five pages long, and on each page was a series of interconnected boxes. There were more than 50 boxes in all, each labeled with a particular project of the Speaker's--in those days the Speaker had projects the way cats have kittens. The projects ranged from the commonplace, like tax cuts, to the arcane, like the development of Internet technology in the practice of medicine. On the document's first page, in capital letters, was the rubric under which all this dizzy activity was to take place: NEWTWORLD. Newtworld was a very busy place. And Newt Gingrich was a very ambitious man. Which in the end is what did him in.
Gingrich's ambitions, it turned out, were even vaster than those suggested by his five-page prospectus. A couple of years later, the House Ethics Committee released an appendix to its report on the Speaker's various ethics problems. The appendix was an amazing compendium of Gingrich's notes, speech drafts, memos and correspondence--a glimpse into the soul of Newtworld's architect during his private moments. It included, among much else, a handwritten note by Gingrich from December 1992. "Gingrich--primary mission," it read in part. "Advocate of civilization. Definer of civilization. Teacher of the rules of civilization...Leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces."
As leader, definer, advocate, etc., Gingrich developed a series of ideas as large as his ambitions. His thinking was thoroughly schematic--in the manner, for example, of self-help books like Stephen Covey's The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which the banalities are broken down and presented as "steps" and "affirmations" and hence made easily digestible to the hungry hordes. Such books, in fact, seemed to be Gingrich's main source of inspiration as a thinker. He was mad for lists and jargon. In speeches and seminars he spoke of the triangle of American progress, the nine zones of creativity, the four great truths and--his personal favorite--the five pillars of American civilization. (For those taking notes, the five pillars are personal strength, history, entrepreneurial free enterprise, the spirit of invention and discovery, and--seriously--total quality management.)
But what, you might ask, did all this mean for practical politics? Here is where the difficulties arose. Trying to explain himself, as he so often did, Gingrich would only make matters worse. After Bob Dole's defeat in 1996, the Speaker tried to inspire the troops with a "movement planning proposal," in which the definer defined his mission (take a deep breath) like so: "We are the positive, values-oriented, problem-solving movement committed to a stronger better America with a better government that uses modern management, relies on faith-based and other charities, pursues modern science and technology, encourages wealth creation through the private sector, and helps people move from poverty to prosperity so we can have better services through a smaller..." and so on, for another 30 words, before the sentence came to a merciful close. Gingrich's vision was always totalistic, if never quite comprehensible. It encompassed simply everything.
Newtworld, then, was indeed a world; it just didn't happen to intersect with anyone else's. And this taste for abstraction--this preference for conceptual grandiosity at the expense of the gritty work of politics--inevitably infected the Republicans he tried to lead. In this last session of Congress, to take an obvious example, the Republicans voted to "scrap" the entire federal tax code by the year 2000. The leadership sent out two of its members on a much publicized barnstorming tour to debate the relative virtues of a flat tax and a national sales tax. The gestures were stirring and bold and utterly beside the point. For when an actual budget was actually passed, the Republicans had scarcely managed to actually cut taxes at all.
In hindsight, now that Gingrich is leaving public life, you can find something almost touching about Newtworld--a goofiness more childlike than sinister. He was a Utopian working in a political system designed to confound every Utopian ambition, in a country genetically skeptical of revolutionaries with "big ideas." This was a lesson learned early by his political nemesis Bill Clinton. Having tried, with disastrous results, to refashion the nation's health-care system from bottom to top, Clinton remade himself with an agenda that was, to put it kindly, of a much smaller scale. The wised-up President announced that he would, for example, mandate safety locks on guns, reduce average school-class size from 23 students to 21 and allow women to stay 48 hours in the hospital after a mastectomy--rather less ambitious than Gingrich's promise "to lead the entire human race to freedom, prosperity and safety." Now Gingrich is gone, while Clinton remains. And American civilization, it's safe to say, will survive the departure of its would-be definer.
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Cover Date: November 16, 1998
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Goodbye, brave Newtworld
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