Newt Gingrich the Galactic Historian
The writer was Historian of the U. S. House of Representatives from 1983 to 1995. He was fired from that job as one of the first acts of Speaker Newt Gingrich when he took power. Speaker Gingrich hired his own historian, a fellow Georgian and member of his cadre who had served as a “down-link hostess” for Gingrich’s controversial telecourse “Renewing American Civilization.” Gingrich fired her during the first week she was on the job.
Trying to figure out Newt Gingrich has become a cottage industry now that he is running for president. He is a self-confessed revolutionary who wants to fundamentally change America. He is ambitious, power hungry, and ruthlessly focused. He is a natural for Washington, where such attributes are both feared and admired. How did Newt get this way? What makes him tick? Much has been written about him since he sprang into public consciousness in 1994 with his “Contract with America” that was instrumental in upsetting the Democratic Party’s 40-year control of the House of Representatives and eventually gained him the Speakership. But little has been written about his big vision as a transformational figure not only for the United States but for the whole planet.
If men are from Mars and women are from Venus, Newt Gingrich is from the planet Trantor, a fictional world created by Isaac Asimov in his classic Foundation series about galactic empire. Newt’s master plan for America does not come from a Republican Party playbook. It comes from the science fiction that he read in high school. He is playing out, on a national and global scale, dreams he had as a teenager with his nose buried in pulp fiction.
Newt is an avid reader of both history and science fiction. About the time he finished reading Arnold Toynbee’s A Study of History, the sweeping story of the entire human race, and Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he discovered Isaac Asimov’s three books Foundation (1951), Foundation and Empire (1952), and Second Foundation (1953). To Newt’s amazement the Foundation series was an inspired version of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall set thousands of years in the future rather than the past. Newt was more fascinated by the fictional decline of an empire of a million planets than he was the real decline of ancient Rome.
Asimov’s fiction had greater sweep than the historical works of Toynbee and Gibbon. To an impressionable young man, the fate of one planet was nothing compared to an entire galaxy of worlds. As one paperback cover of Foundation proclaimed: “In a future century the Galactic Empire dies and one man creates a new force for civilized life.” Newt liked the idea of one man shaping the destiny of entire civilizations. That fictional man, Hari Seldon, was a special breed of historian who frequented a far-off planet called Trantor. Newt found his role model not in his stern stepfather, but in a historian from another planet, a great historian and teacher who thought really big galactic-size thoughts.
Trantor was the administrative center of the inhabited universe. It was a teeming planet of 40 billion bureaucrats, scientists, politicians, and religious leaders, with tons of intrigue great and small. It was the planet where people of power gravitated. It was a lot like Rome in its heyday. It was a lot like Washington D.C., where some think there are indeed 40 billion bureaucrats.
Newt dreamed of going to Washington, becoming Speaker, and saving America and planet Earth. He knew he could do this even if most people didn’t like him. To become Speaker takes a few hundred thousand votes in a single congressional district and a few hundred votes of members of the majority party in the House to become Speaker. The Speakership is the highest constitutional office one can achieve with so few votes. It is the one office that has no defined powers and no constitutional limits on power. It is an office that has the potential to rival the presidency.
Hari Seldon, Newt’s fictional hero and role model, according to the Encyclopedia Galactica, published on another planet called Terminus, was born to middle-class parents, just like Newt was. Seldon was a brilliant child with an aptitude for mathematics who would become the founder of a new field called psychohistory. Here is Newt’s own explanation of the field of psychohistory and his fascination with Hari Seldon from his political manifesto To Renew America (1996), published during his tenure as Speaker.
While Toynbee was impressing me with the history of civilizations, Isaac Asimov was shaping my view of the future in equally profound ways….For a high school student who loved history, Asimov’s most exhilarating invention was the ‘psychohistorian’ Hari Seldon. The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations. The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior. Pollsters and advertisers now make a good living off the same theory.
Edward Gibbon saw the decline of Rome, Hari Seldon saw the decline of the galactic empire, and Newt Gingrich saw the decline of America. Newt says America’s decline began in the 1960s with liberal hippies and Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society. History and fiction seem more exciting when there is decline. This gives heroes, visionaries, demagogues, and politicians something to fix. People on Planet Earth have different views about exactly what parts of our civilization are in decay. Hari Seldon had the same problem trying to convince a commission on Trantor that things were going sour in the Galactic Empire. Newt learned that Hari Seldon could not save the Galactic Empire from decay but that he could predict its decline. Likewise, Newt alone could not save America from decline, but he could alert people to the decline and find ways to minimize it.
Hari Seldon predicted that it would take only a small cadre of 100,000 persons who could be trained in the ways of civilization to eventually change the whole galaxy. On Trantor and across the galaxy on Terminus, the cadre took shape through a highly disciplined group of scholars and visionaries called “The Foundation.” Their job was to create an encyclopedia of all knowledge. “While the Foundation scholars,” Newt wrote, “were incapable of stopping the Empire’s decline, they could compile knowledge and teach small cadres in a way that would limit the Dark Ages and accelerate the eventual Renaissance.” Newt’s parallel plan for America was to lead us out of the Dark Ages of the Welfare State and into the glorious renaissance of what he called the “Opportunity Society.”
While Hari Seldon created the Foundation to carry out his work, Newt used a variety of foundations and organizations to foster his work. The first was GOPAC, originally founded by Pete DuPont in 1979 to help elect Republicans to office. Newt took over GOPAC and made it a powerful fund-raising and educational arm of the Republican Party, offering seminars, educational video tapes, and programs designed to build the cadre of conservative Republicans. His signature course, “Renewing American Civilization” was first offered in 1993, shortly before his successful effort to unseat the Democratic majority in the House. It was right out of Hari Seldon’s galactic playbook. Since he resigned the Speakership in 1998, Newt has expanded his reach, his personal brand, and his cadre with such entities as the Gingrich Foundation, The Gingrich Group, The Center for Health Transformation, American Solutions for Winning the Future, Gingrich Communications, and Gingrich Productions (run by his third wife Callista).
Exhibit 42 of the House Ethics Committee report issued in the wake of Speaker Gingrich’s ethics violations regarding the suspicious tax-exempt status of his course Renewing American Civilization, reveals how much Newt internalized the fictional historian Hari Seldon. Scribbled in Newt’s own hand are notes he made during a 1992 meeting with a major contributor of GOPAC. He outlined his role as a visionary leader. His “primary mission” was to be an “advocate of civilization”—a “definer of civilization”—the “teacher of the rules of civilization”—and “leader (possibly) of the civilizing forces.” Newt saw his mission as “universal rather than national.”
Newt Gingrich assumes the mantle of the history professor when it suits the occasion. Other times he plays down his academic background. When in professor mode he likes to recommend books. None carry more weight in understanding his political and personal drive and his strategy to transform America more than the science fiction of Isaac Asimov. The greatest influence on Newt Gingrich, the conservative Republican, was the liberal atheist Isaac Asimov. Many in Newt’s generation, including me, read that stuff with great gusto and fascination. It was marvelous entertainment. Newt saw not just entertainment but a master plan using the Foundation trilogy as his political handbook, a guide to how one man creates a new force for civilized life. Two thousand years ago Cicero observed that to be ignorant of history was to remain always a child. To which we might add a Gingrich corollary: to confuse science fiction with reality is to remain always a child.