By the time he was 16, Newt Gingrich was sure of two things.
He would marry his high school geometry teacher. And he would save Western civilization.
Gingrich has moved on to younger wives. But he’s still obsessed with numbers and rescuing the planet.
In 1994, he described himself to me as “a conservative futurist,” which seems like an oxymoron. The man George Will once called a “cherub with a chip on his shoulder” finds the future simultaneously apocalyptic and massively fun.
You can picture President Gingrich on his first day in the Oval Office, emanating an impish doomsday aura of “Let’s see what happens if we press this button!”
In his own feverish, gee-whiz imagination, Newt is both the arsonist and the fireman.
When I covered Gingrich during his ’90s revolution, he was captivated by Alvin Toffler’s “The Third Wave” and the “Star Wars” trilogy; he was hanging around with Arianna Huffington, author of “The Fourth Instinct”; he preached a Contract With America that contained eight reforms and 10 proposed laws; he proselytized five “new” aims — new hope, new dialogue, new access, new partnership and a new team — and his reading list included “The Book of Five Rings: The Classic Guide to Strategy” by a 17th-century Samurai warrior and martial-arts master named Miyamoto Musashi.
Speaker Gingrich told me that he became a historian because he read Isaac Asimov’s seven-volume Foundation series about a mathematician and psychohistorian from Planet Trantor “who looked at long sweeps of history and tried to understand probable patterns of behavior.”
“I found it a very believable and understandable way of thinking about data,” he said. (Feel free to supply your own joke about Psycho Historians.)
I asked the speaker if he believed in space aliens. “It’s mathematically plausible,” he replied, joking that he hoped a friend who had written about space-traveling pachyderms was prescient, to speed up Republican colonization of outer space.
In his 1984 book, “Window of Opportunity,” Gingrich cheerleaded for “a permanent lunar colony to exploit the moon’s resources” and honeymoons on the moon, blaming Teddy Kennedy, Jimmy Carter and “the welfare state” for our failure to build Hiltons and Marriotts in the Milky Way.
In his 1995 book “To Renew America” — the books stay largely the same, though the two wives fondly referenced change — Gingrich wrote about six challenges, including putting scientists and adventurers “back into the business of exploration and discovery.”
He spiced up the space honeymoon idea: “Imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attraction.”
Gingrich is a historian who treats the future as history, even though it’s unknowable. He went from backbench bomb-thrower to Newt Skywalker, talking “byte cities,” “brain lords” and “cyberpolitics.”
At a talk I attended here in 1995 called “From Virtuality to Reality,” the speaker declared: “In a sense, virtuality at the mental level is something I think you’d find in most leadership over historical periods.” Sounding Newt Age-y, he mused: “We are not at a new place. It is just becoming harder and harder and harder to avoid the place we are.”
Gingrich, who had gotten to know Alvin and Heidi Toffler in the ’70s when he was a history teacher at West Georgia College, asked the futurists to advise him on how to recast Congress for a “third wave” information society — following the first agricultural wave and the second industrial wave.
Certainly, Gingrich, the self-styled Destroyer and Savior of Civilization, must have been drawn to Toffler’s contention in “The Third Wave” that visionaries must engage in the “mind-staggering” project of bulldozing government and “building a new civilization on the wreckage of the old.”
Conceding that some would find it “seditious,” Toffler informed the founders in an imaginary letter that their system of government was “increasingly, if inadvertently, oppressive and dangerous to our welfare.”
Gingrich agreed in 1995 that we might have to “rethink our Constitution” — something that wouldn’t go over well with originalists.
The man who wishes to be our leader implementing Lean Six Sigma might shy away from Toffler’s main thesis, that we were moving toward a basically leaderless society where information was available to everyone, so everyone could make their own decisions. “Someday,” Toffler wrote, “future historians may look back on voting and the search for majorities as an archaic ritual engaged in by communicational primitives.”
And what about Toffler’s prediction that those (like Gingrich) who resist the end of the nuclear family and the spread of gay parenting, gay rights, women’s rights and abortion access as variegated families set up shop in “electronic cottages” would just add to the pain of inevitable transition to a “de-massified society”?
Torn between the virtual and the virtue-crats, Gingrich this week endorsed the “marriage pledge” of an evangelical group in Iowa opposing same-sex marriage and abortion and vowed fidelity to Callista. Hasn’t he taken that vow and broken it twice before?
Sometimes you go with “Future Shock.” Sometimes you go with present schlock.
- MAUREEN DOWD