Newt on the Recent and Distant Past
(Editor's note: Elise Cooper and Jeff Lipkes are covering the GOP Convention for AT. They spoke with Newt Gingrich last week.)
AT asked the former speaker: why isn't Newt Gingrich being nominated in Tampa at the end of the month?
According to the former speaker, it wasn't his position on particular issues or questions raised about his personal life. He was outspent and out-organized by Mitt Romney, who had been running for half a dozen years before the primary season opened.
Most readers are likely to agree that Romney's organization and resources gave him an overwhelming advantage. But some may feel that Newt's running to the former governor's left in Florida didn't help. (Florida, Newt concedes, was a big turning point.) The melodrama of Newt's personal life was old news -- unlike allegations about Herman Cain -- but voters may have been turned off by revelations about his liaisons with Nancy, Al, and Freddie.
The second reason Newt gave for his failure to secure the nomination may cause some eyebrows to rise. He told AT that he reluctantly followed the advice of consultants to wage a conventional campaign. But he's an unconventional guy, and he did not have a chance to showcase interests that range from brain research to space exploration to innovative management plans that could slice billions from the federal budget. Gingrich is undoubtedly a brilliant polymath, but it's not clear that his wide-ranging interests would have ignited the party's rank and file if he'd spent more time elucidating them.
A lot of observers on the right concluded that the media went after the non-Romneys one by one, and Newt's turn eventually came. But Gingrich doesn't blame his defeat on the Fourth Estate.
Not that he has any fond thoughts about the MSM elites. In his view, they are a subset, with the entertainment industry, of a pernicious leftist academic culture.
"Academia," Newt said, "has become the central refuge of people who do not want to be in the competitive business world. For the last sixty years we've build a heavily entrenched academic world largely out of touch with reality. It operates as a guild system which only promotes those who share the already existing biases. It's very dangerous, very destructive."
Can anything be done to reform academia?
"We have to encourage every center that is prepared to fight," says Newt. In the case of public universities, voters must press legislators to scrutinize them more closely. "There is no reason taxpayers should pay people to teach their children to despise them."
Of course, Gingrich himself is a former academic. But it will come as a surprise to some that he was not originally, as one would suppose, an American historian. His dissertation was on the education policies of the Belgian government in the Congo. Gingrich's research was carried out at the Belgian equivalent of the Library of Congress, the Bibliothèque Albert in Brussels, en français. His adviser was an historian of Belgium, and a visiting lecturer convinced him that he really needed to study the third world if he wanted to understand Europe and the U.S. The way in which Belgian plans went awry, he says, was very instructive to him.
Since those days, Gingrich has turned away from conventional history. With collaborator William Forstchen, he's written three alternate history novels about the Civil War and two about World War II. A second trilogy will be completed this November, when he and Forstchen's Victory at Yorktown will appear. The novels about the Revolutionary War, however, retell the story of the actual events; they don't speculate about alternative outcomes. Gingrich has a passionate for the Revolution and wants to infect readers with his enthusiasm.
Though he's keenly interested in the Civil War, one senses that it's more of an intellectual puzzle for Newt. What would have happened if Lee had won at Gettysburg? Gingrich worked with the Army War College to model this possibility.
An Army brat, Gingrich was born in Pennsylvania, and he lived in Germany and France. Though his father was stationed at Ft. Benning his last year in high school and he attended Emory, Newt is a Georgian because he accepted a teaching position in the Peach State. His emotions, one feels, are not as engaged by the War Between the States as by the conflict that created our country.
But Gingrich and Forstchen's fourth Civil War novel, To Make Men Free, is an exception. Rather than being an exercise in alternate history, it brings to life the Battle of the Crater, in which the Union Army, by blowing up Ft. Pegram in front of Petersburg, Virginia, hoped to capture Richmond and end the war. For Gingrich, what makes the story memorable and worth retelling is the role of African-American troops in the assault on the fort after the mines were detonated. Like all his historical fiction, it's told from multiple perspectives, with fictional characters interacting with actual historical figures.
Though blessed or cursed with a hyperactive imagination as an historian and as a public intellectual, when it comes to advice about the GOP campaign, Gingrich is stolidly conventional. He repeated the Carville maxim: "It's the economy, stupid." Asked if Mitt Romney ought to raise questions about the president's shadowy past, Newt insisted that that should be left to the likes of Donald Trump and Dinesh D'Souza. "Every day you have a headline that isn't about the economy, you've wasted a day."
The same holds true of Fast and Furious. It's nice that Daryl Issa is pursuing this, but it should be off the table for the Republican nominee.
When asked to write an alternate novel on the spot, set in the U.S. in 2016 following an Obama victory in 2012, Gingrich hesitated for the first and only time in our 45-minute interview. "An Obama victory would be a disaster," he said, "a threat to my grandchildren's future." Radical judges would turn the Supreme Court into the equivalent of the 9th Circuit Court, the economy would be crippled, class warfare would be endemic. "You're asking me to think about writing some kind of horror story."