Newtopia

Christopher Hitchens

  • To Renew America by Newt Gingrich
    HarperCollins, 260 pp, £18.00, July 1995, ISBN 0 06 017336 X

The dust-jacket of this book carries the assertion, outlined in a box for those who like their facts highlighted, that

Many people in government and the media tried to stop the publication of this book so that you could not read it.

But now you can.

Or at the very least, now you may. I telephoned the publicity department of HarperCollins to inquire who had tried, and how, to ‘stop the publication’ of Newt’s fruits. There was vagueness. I was referred downwards and sideways and eventually into the post-voicemail void. Now, there was a Washington row about this book, and I remember it very well. Just after Gingrich became Speaker of the House, Rupert Murdoch came to town to lobby Congress and the Federal Communications Commission about his near-oligopoly in print and television. There had been mutterings about restraint of competition. In parallel with this proceeding, and obviously impressed by Gingrich’s triumph in the fall elections of 1994, Murdoch had commissioned a short book from the new Speaker. The advance was $4.6 million: not bad for an untried new writer. The row was not of Martin Amis proportions – this is not a very literary town – but there were some ugly whispers about conflict of interest. Mr Gingrich himself agreed to waive the advance in exchange for a share of royalties that will probably net him about the same. Nobody in ‘government’ was involved at all. And few in ‘the media’ these days will question the sapience of a Murdoch decision. So the Speaker’s pamphlet now rides the bestseller lists, complete with a knowingly false claim on its inside cover.

It’s not the fraudulence of this that strikes the eye so much as the self-pity. The bosses of the new conservatism go about the place talking (but by no means looking) like the members of some dissident and persecuted underground. All you have to do, in order to sympathise with these neo-zealots, is pretend to yourself that the United States has been a socialist state since the mid-Sixties. Well, any thought experiment can be useful if it’s undertaken in a critical and open-minded spirit. Let us by all means approach the Gingrich factor in this way.

Way back in Reagan’s first term, I was invited to CNN’s Crossfire studio to debate something or other. The usual form was – and still is – that some right-wing bigmouth would be asked to say how bad Communism or terrorism or child abuse or drug addiction was, and some liberal or leftist would be given a few moments to say that they weren’t so bad after all. Two conservative moderators, one extreme and one rabidly extreme, were on hand to see fair play. I was told that my opponent for the evening would be Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Sounded like a redneck to me, and a wondrous name withal. (Mark Stamaty, best of Washington cartoonists, took to calling him ‘Congressman Hoot Salamander’.) I didn’t do much prep. As usual, the proceedings opened with the charge that I was ignorant of the lessons of Munich. Generally, the other side didn’t know anything about Munich at all, and a few facts would confound them. But this time, the other guy seemed to know quite a lot of European history. I regrouped but – too late. So who was this Newt? Could he be a man to watch? He went on to make himself watchable, at any rate, becoming the first Congressman to master the new medium of C-Span cable TV. He did odd things, like write an open letter to the South African ambassador warning him that traditional conservative support could no longer be counted on. He set a tremendous trap for Jim Wright, the machine-made Texan Democratic Speaker, and sprang the trap with a tremendous clang. (Oddly enough, Wright’s indiscretion concerned a book he had written, the royalties of which were said to be creatively accounted.) I slightly got to know Gingrich’s press spokesman, a raffish Brit named Tony Blankley who chain-smoked in defiance of all regulations, kept a good table and had given up a promising career as a child-actor when he got too chubby. (‘My last movie was also Humphrey Bogart’s last movie.’) Just before the 1992 Presidential election, I went to interview Gingrich for the BBC. Clinton wanted ‘change’, he scoffed. Well, if the electorate really wanted change they would throw out the encrusted Democratic leadership in Congress, with its entourage of lobbyists, lawyers and special interests. Clinton went on to win, but I had been given a sneak preview of what was to become the ‘Contract with America’. (And these days, conservatives are much franker about what they wanted in 1992. They all hoped for the election of Clinton, because it got rid of the hated ‘moderate’ George Bush and also gave them the ideal Democrat against whom to ‘define’ themselves.)

After his triumph last November, I got hold of Gingrich’s doctoral thesis from Tulane University. It was about education policy in the Belgian Congo. Not very well written – the opening sentence reads: ‘The Congo is a large country’ – it rested on a bizarre argument about the failure of colonialism being related to the excessive size of the state. But it showed extensive reading and industry, and every now and then would bring the reader up short with an aperçu. His new pamphlet is a bit like that, except with more hype and hucksterism and fewer footnotes.

You can take the temperature of the writing from the very opening passage, where it is stated that ‘We have placed men on the moon, yet ... ’ In my experience, this is the unvarying prelude to a mass of dissociated generalisations and complaints, of the country-dogsward variety. Gingrich affects to believe that the country has been dogsward ‘since 1965’, when ‘a calculated effort by cultural élites to discredit this civilisation and replace it with a culture of irresponsibility’ got under way. He also maintains that, ‘from the arrival of English-speaking colonists in 1607 until 1965, there was one continuous civilisation built around a set of commonly accepted legal and cultural principles.’ Not only is this a virtually Panglossian account of the colonial revolution, the Civil War and Reconstruction, to say nothing of the debates over mass immigration, Prohibition, civil rights and foreign wars. It is a positively apocalyptic reading of the Sixties. As with theories of the collapse of Rome, you can tell a good deal about somebody from the cause of decadence, and the date of same, in which he believes: 1965 is an interesting choice of year; Gingrich cites it more than once without giving his reasons. I keep a framed copy of a 1964 New York Times front page in my home. The lead headline, right across the top, tells of the Gulf of Tonkin incident and President Johnson’s request for war-making powers in Indo-China. The second headline, also right across the page in what must have been a tough day for sub-editors, reports the FBI’s discovery of three corpses, believed to be of three missing civil-rights workers, in a swamp in Mississippi. For me, and for most of my American friends, it’s been all downhill since the war and the civil rights movement pulled the country in opposite directions. The war debased democracy, erected a culture of secrecy and conspiracy and absorbed the resources – moral and material – which were on the verge of ‘renewing America’. This belief, which was radical in 1965, is uncontroversial today and we now know that it was even held by Robert McNamara at the very time he was ordering the carpet-bombing of Vietnam.

Now here’s the interesting thing. Gingrich opposed the war and took a draft deferment every bit as opportunist as Clinton’s. He also supported the Martin Luther King movement, and paid generous tribute to it (criticising his own party for its abstention and opposition) in his inaugural address as Speaker. Furthermore, he has admitted to smoking dope, to divorcing his first wife while she was in the recovery room after a cancer operation and to missing his child-support payments. His half-sister – he is a child of divorce and of name-change, just like his political sibling Bill Clinton – is a self-proclaimed Sapphist. In one chapter of this book Gingrich calls with an apparently straight face for abstention from pre-marital sex. But could anyone except an amoral child of the counter-culture have pulled off the ‘Republican revolution’?

The requirements of partisanship probably have a lot to do with this apparent contradiction. As Gingrich points out in the account he gives here of his formative period, if you grew up in the South in the Fifties and Sixties, it was the Democratic Party that represented the corrupt, gerrymandering and racist establishment. He viewed the Kennedy election, in which he took a junior’s part, as one more ‘delivery’ of the Georgia vote by the local patronage system. This is a truer account of the origins of ‘Camelot’ than many sentimental retrospectives allow. But now it is the Republican Party which shelters the white supremacists and religious bigots. Gingrich didn’t really hate the Sixties. But for tactical reasons, he needs the people who did. Much of this book is taken up with a restatement of the Contract with America on which the GOP took both Houses in 1992. Conspicuously absent from that binding document were any mentions of the energising issues – school prayer and abortion – which really motivate the Right. This was for two reasons. First, the Contract was the most completely poll-driven manifesto in modern history. Frank Luntz, the Republican Party’s opinion-meister, ran questions by focus-groups and other poll-fodder until he found topics (like lower taxation) which rang a bell. If the bell rang, the plank went into the platform. If not, not. Most people don’t want a Federal ban on abortions and are at best indifferent to the school-prayer flapdoodle. The second reason is that Gingrich himself is not excited by these ‘Christian Coalition’ hysterias. He criticised Jesse Helms the other day, when that ghastly old pervert proposed a cut-off in funding for Aids research on the grounds that homosexuals deserved what they got. He criticised Charles Murray’s notorious tract The Bell Curve – a book with totemic status on the Right – because it treated people as categories rather than individuals. He was reliably reactionary, true, when Congressman Robert Torricelli of New Jersey blew the whistle on the CIA in Guatemala the other day. Sounding just like one of the hidebound old guardians of Congressional privilege whom he affects to abhor, Gingrich accused Torricelli of abusing his position as a member of the House Intelligence Committee. Gingrich soon backed off. But it will be a cold day in Hades before a Republican in a pre-election year will allow an attack on ‘national security’. (The last one to try it was Barry Goldwater, who is turning into the century’s most interesting conservative revisionist.)

To Renew America falls, or slumps, into three parts or voices or moods. The first is party-political boilerplate. The second is futurism married to libertarianism – at least in its capitalist mode. The third is about dinosaurs. The party-political stuff shows mainly in Gingrich’s apparent obsession with the sex-lives of the underclass. The Republicans have found a ‘wedge’ issue here, comparable to the ‘war’ on crime, and the Democrats have had no choice but to capitulate again and again. ‘No civilisation can survive for long with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds killing one another, 17-year-olds dying of Aids and 18-year-olds getting diplomas they can’t read. Yet every night on the local news, you and I watch the welfare state undermining our society.’ Welfare costs absorb a whole I per cent of the Federal budget, but the welfare underclass supplies perhaps 50 per cent of America’s political anecdotes – a productivity factor that is a story in itself. It is felt, perhaps, that at least one class in America should set an example of continence, wedlock and thrift. No other class shows any sign of doing so. The vast depredations of the Savings and Loan scandal, the Bank of Credit and Commence International, the ‘defence’ industry boondoggles and the welfare-style tax-breaks for corporations – these are complex and do not yield such rich anecdotal material. At all events, Gingrich fails even to mention them.

In a recent speech in Philadelphia, Gingrich adumbrated one of the chapters of this pamphlet by calling for drug dealers to be executed. And then he went one step further by saying that it was either capital punishment or drug legalisation. Something in him, I surmise, knows that the second option makes more sense than anybody admits. Prohibition and ‘big government’ have nowhere failed as abjectly as in the case of the ‘war on drugs’, by Richard Nixon out of Nancy Reagan. Many more consistent libertarian anti-statists, such as William Buckley, have publicly called for decriminalisation – a cumbersome term for a simple concept. It is when he writes as a techno-libertarian that Gingrich shows his engaging side:

Imagine a morning in just a decade or so. You wake up to a wall-size, high-definition television showing surf off Maui. (This is my favourite island – you can pick your own scene.) You walk or jog or do Stairmaster while catching up on the news and beginning to review your day’s schedule. Your home office is filled with communications devices, so you can ignore rush-hour traffic. In fact, since most Americans now telecommute, rush hour is dramatically smaller than it used to be. Telecommuting has proved to be the best means of dealing with air pollution.

Two further benefits accrue, says Gingrich, to the autonomous wired citizen. We will shortly be able to sit in diagnostic chairs, and shop around for doctors and treatments through the multinational database. We shall also be ‘empowered’ to do our own legal paperwork with software programmes. The twin medical and legal ‘guilds’ – ‘so similar to the medieval craft guilds that were scattered by the Industrial Revolution’ – will have been broken. This of course is a very upbeat, Horatio Alger-style recasting of the celebrated ‘Third Wave’ hypothesis put forward by Alvin and Heidi Toffler. It owes something, indirectly, to the work on the ‘Second Industrial Revolution’ authored by the late Ernest Mandel. And it has some truth to it, even if it is here stated so blithely as to resemble a conservative News from Nowhere techno-utopia, where the redundant retrain themselves on line. In practical terms it puts Gingrich in head-on opposition to the protectionist, nativist, blue-collar national socialism preached by the Pat Buchanan wing of the Republican Party. Free trade? Of course! Unemployment? Self-cancelling by means of the invisible hand! Pollution? Arrant pessimism! Ghettoes? There is a potential Bill Gates hidden away in every one of them! (Gingrich actually does say this.) But, as he insists with frequent reference to Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and others, there is simply no point in being an American if you doubt the boundlessness of innovation, opportunity and mass-marketing. Why, in the information economy, ‘you may know more than anyone else about the incorporation laws of Zaire and offer advice to anyone attempting to set up a business in that country.’ There’s that doctoral thesis, paying off again. (I’ve been to Zaire, jewel in America’s African crown. I can give the incorporation advice myself: bring lawyers, guns and money.)

In his zestful attack on bureaucracy, Gingrich makes an attempt to be fair. Unlike many Republicans, he agrees that the military establishment exploited the Cold War to aggrandise and pamper itself, and he believes that the resulting Moloch should be trimmed a little and run on sounder business principles. During the initial hundred-day enactment of the Contract with America, Gingrich seemed almost casual about the defeat of the Star Wars budget. I suspected him of arranging to lose the vote, despite the many laser and satellite treats it would have afforded him, because he knew that the sheer cost would undermine his other tax-cutting proposals. Whether or not I was correct in that suspicion, the Republican majority in Congress has since taken the Star Wars ball and run with it, notwithstanding the fact that it dooms the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty: one of the few successful instruments of the Cold War. Having cut billions from social and welfare budgets and having voted, for instance, to abolish the office of Surgeon-General, the House went into recess in August after awarding the Pentagon seven billion more dollars than it had dared to ask for.

I don’t know if Newt has ever been ‘in recovery’, but he does have an addiction to ten and 12-step programmes. Or sometimes eight steps, as in ‘improving opportunities for the poor’. (Step one: ‘Shifting from caretaking to caring.’) The health-care revolution has nine points. The Contract with America made it to ten. It is in the health-care chapter that we find the large hook protruding from the libertarian, anti-government bait. Praising various new, thrusting and entrepreneurial initiatives in the medical field, the Speaker singles out the almost too-perfectly named Golden Rule Insurance Company, which he cites as combining the maximum of coverage with the minimum of overhead. This must be the same Golden Rule Insurance Company which underwrites Mr Gingrich’s own campaign fund, his own political action committee (Gopac) and the foundation which markets his own educational videos. It also sponsors his show on National Empowerment Television, the conservative cable network which features Newt as a co-host along with Arianna Stassinopoulos Huffington. Not all figures are disclosed, but we know that Gingrich has accepted at least $200,000 from this single source.

By American fund-raising standards, such as those of Senator Phil Gramm for example, this is very small beer. But it stands for a much more general instatement of the plutocratic principle in Congressional politics. With the dread words ‘government’ and ‘regulation’ banned from the lexicon of the Hill, we have not entered an era of blissed-out libertarianism. Instead, lobbyists and fat cats are actually writing the legislation, rather than just pushing for it. The New York Times recently ran a front-page story its own reporter could hardly believe, about the way that company directors and financial donors were actually sitting in on the drafting of bills – usually bills that involved irksome laws about environmental degradation and the safety of products. Not since Mark Twain’s Gilded Age has it been so clear that, in the words of the old Golden Rule gag, the man who has the gold makes the rules. The Contract with America contains a firm commitment to limit all Congressional terms to two – a suggestion which the Supreme Court has rightly held to be unconstitutional, because it deprives the voters of the chance to return a candidate of their choice, and it deprives candidates of the right to put themselves forward. But the utility of the proposal to the lobbyists and fund-raisers is manifest: by the end of the century there would be no legislator with security of tenure, and every committee chairman in Congress would be looking for a little pot of retirement money. Gingrich’s chapter on this is rotten with disingenuousness and special pleading. Dishonestly citing an earlier book on financial corruption under the Democrats by the brilliant Wall Street Journal writer, Brooks Jackson, he misses its point (and refers repeatedly to the author as Jackson Brooks).

Still, are we supposed to dislike a writer with such a boyish love for dinosaurs? These great lizards are to Gingrich a sort of King Charles’s Head: he can’t keep them out of the narrative. Recently, when he found the tempestuous Melanie Griffith in a House corridor (she was there to lobby against the cancellation of funding for public television and the arts: another joint Gingrich-Murdoch enterprise), the Speaker crept up and asked ‘Would you like to see my dinosaur?’ He has a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull in his office. He has a Tyrannosaurus Rex skull in his skull: ‘Just list some of the changes we are living through: laptop computers, cellular telephones, molecular medicine, new discoveries about the dinosaurs, home security systems that talk, composite materials that make cars lighter, micro-engineering, manufacturing in space, high definition television, the video store – the list goes on and on.’ It certainly does – at least the dinosaurs do. Listing the great innovators who got where they are without a college degree, Gingrich gives us ‘Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple computers and’ – whoops – ‘Jack Horner, one of the world’s leading paleontologists’. Mr Horner appears again on page 147. On page 190, having dismissed Michael Crichton as a practitioner of ‘standard alarmist environmentalism’, Gingrich muses: ‘Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park? (It may not be at all impossible, you know.)’ ‘My early professional dreams,’ he lets fall a few pages later, ‘were of becoming a zoo director or a vertebrate paleontologist.’

Something, either in the Jurassic past or in the stellar future, appears to bring out the frisky in Newt, who is not for nothing nicknamed for an amphibian. If it isn’t Melanie Griffith, it’s saucy stuff about ‘honeymoons in space by 2020. Imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attractions.’ But in all his paeans to the space programme, Gingrich talks as if the astronauts built their own craft with their own savings and just blasted off to prove that the crazy old American dream had life in it still. The role of boring old public investment just does not ‘compute’ in this world view. And innocence, as we know, can be as dangerous as its cousin, cynicism. Admitting recently that he knew nothing at all about foreign policy, the irrepressible Speaker sought to disarm concern by announcing that he was taking advice from Henry Kissinger – moral tutor to crooks and villains and pseudo-intellectuals the world over.

There is a paradox at the very core of the ‘new’ Republicanism. It is a theory and a practice that distrusts, even hates, the state and the government. But it is also a theory and a practice that believes, even religiously affirms, ‘States’ Rights’, In a bizarre mutation of Federalism, the foes of the state want to multiply its powers by fifty. Gingrich actually concedes this point without realising it, when he describes the Democratic Georgia of his boyhood:

This intense bias toward very small, very rural counties gave a tremendous advantage to rural machines dominated by sheriffs and county commissioners. Because these districts were poor, the pressure toward graft and corruption was almost overwhelming. The system of ‘courthouse machines’ ultimately led to one of the most colourful and most corrupt governors in the country, Marvin Griffin. Reader’s Digest once ran an article recounting his scandals and colourful stories. My favourite was his retort when reporters discovered he had bought boats without bottoms. ‘Those are for the state parks without lakes,’ he responded.

And how we all laughed. But look today at Orange County, California – one of the richest and most conservative districts in the United States. It is officially bankrupt because of its refusal to tax anybody, and because this denial of revenue forced the local treasurer into speculating the county bonds on a Barings-type ‘derivative’ scheme.

Better still, take a long look at the classic small town of Union, South Carolina. In the past few weeks, a trial there has succeeded in deposing O.J. Simpson from his place at the head of the ratings. Susan Smith, a local separated single mother, locked the doors of her car and rolled it into a lake with her two sons, one aged three and the other aged 14 months. She then went calmly to the authorities and claimed that a black man had hijacked her car and driven off with her kids. For nine days, a racial manhunt convulsed the state. Then came the salvage of the car and the children’s bodies, the confession, the hysteria, the prayer-meetings ... It emerged that Ms Smith had at the age of 15 been sexually molested by her stepfather, Mr Beverly Russell, who was until recently a leader of the ‘Christian Coalition’. It emerged, further, that Ms Smith had been sleeping with several men, including at least one relative, in the months before she murdered her little boys because, as she tremulously offered in mitigation, nobody would marry her and take on her babies too. Leave out the racist false trail that she laid for investigators, and you have here exactly what is more often known as underclass and ghetto pathology. Yet it takes place in the model small-town white and religious ‘community’ that Gingrich and others proclaim as their beau idéal. Why mention Union, South Carolina? Because when Ms Smith was first arrested, Newt Gingrich gave it as his opinion that she was an excellent reason to vote Republican. Actions like hers, he opined, were exactly what you would expect from a society sodden with liberal values and permissive élitism. I still think that this will one day be remembered as one of the wickedest things ever said by an American politician. For the moment, it is hardly remembered at all. But, like Newt, I am always looking to the future.