Yea, Newt!

January 18, 1995|By Mona Charen

ONE OF NEWT Gingrich's greatest gifts is his ability to defy stereotyping.

In the weeks after the Nov. 8 election, the press and many Democrats -- including the first family -- thought they could easily fit Mr. Gingrich into the "Scrooge Republican" mold for his comments on orphanages. But alas for those who hoped to pigeonhole him, Mr. Gingrich declined the invitation to treat his remarks as a gaffe and instead offered a passionate indictment of the current system that forces children to dodge gunfire on the way to school and leaves others in trash bins. His consideration of orphanages -- caricatured as heartless by his opponents -- actually grows out of compassion. "How can any American," he asked in his maiden speech as speaker, "read about an 11-year-old buried with his teddy bear because he killed a 14-year-old and then another 14-year-old killed him and not think, 'My God, where has this country gone?' "

That is what a majority of Americans are asking, and that is why the tired Democratic claim to a monopoly on virtue and "concern" for the poor has been ringing hollow. Republicans, and the voters who elect them, are not gripped by "compassion fatigue." Rather, they are convinced that the welfare state the liberals created and preside over is one of the things that itself creates more suffering than necessary.

The real question about Mr. Gingrich's approach to social issues is not whether he is too cruel but whether he may be too sentimental.

When the fracas over the orphanage remark erupted, Mr. Gingrich recommended (to the first lady) the 1938 film "Boys Town." Well, I rented it, and I must report that to 1995 eyes it seems almost saccharine in its naivete.

The film follows the efforts of Father Edward Flanagan (a real person), who had the inspiration to found a home for abandoned, abused and orphaned boys near Omaha, Neb. In those days, the only alternatives for youngsters in trouble were reform schools (no doubt Dickensian in hardship) or the streets. It was Flanagan's belief that these children needed only a loving, secure environment in order to thrive. He scrounged the money to start Boys Town from a kindly tradesman (a species that has disappeared utterly from Hollywood, having been replaced by the businessman murderer).

Flanagan's philosophy, faithfully depicted in the film, was that "there are no bad boys." Flanagan, played by Spencer Tracy, didn't mean that bad behavior could be explained away -- though in one exchange with a skeptical newspaper editor, he does say that the murder of a father by an 11-year-old son was understandable (the child had seen his mother badly abused by the father) -- but for the most part, Flanagan just seems to think that if surrounded by enough goodness, trust and honesty, all boys will show that "they have a heart I can reach."

In true Hollywood fashion, the most problematic child of all, Whitey, arrives at Boys Town full of bluster, disrespect, crudeness and cynicism. But by the end of the film, he is transformed into a modest, courteous and loving boy who is unanimously elected "mayor" by the other children despite his protestations of unworthiness.

Some of this is Hollywood treacle, some of it is anachronism, and some of it is oversimplification. But does the new speaker believe that there are no "bad boys"? Certainly no child is born bad. But it is equally clear that a child subjected to nothing but deprivation and abuse will become bad -- sometimes irredeemably so -- and even the most heroic efforts to reform him will not avail.

I don't think the real Father Flanagan was naive. He did say that there's no such thing as a bad boy, but he also believed in keeping his boys constantly busy so that they wouldn't have the chance to get into trouble. He also said, "Every boy must learn to pray. How he prays is up to him."

Let's give the speaker the benefit of the doubt and assume that what drew him to Boys Town was the idea of a loving, structured, civilized home for children who -- though they may have parents -- have nothing like a real home of their own.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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