Work-loving Gingrich skips the work of writing

March 22, 1995|By MIKE ROYKO

On my office wall, there hangs one lone slogan. It comes from Samuel Johnson and it says: "No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."

I don't know if that's entirely true. There are obscure poets and novelists who feverishly write for the sheer joy of putting their thoughts to paper, regardless of what critics say or how little money they are paid. Maybe that is why they are obscure.

But in general, I think Johnson is on the mark. Writing is a form of work, and workers should be paid. If they work for nothing, they are little more than slaves. Or, as Johnson said, blockheads.

So I find myself sort of disappointed by Newt Gingrich, this political season's deepest thinker, hottest idea man and inspirational source of moral standards.

When the news first broke that Newt was going to be paid a $4.5 million advance to write a book about his vision for this nation, I didn't plunge into the debate over whether the size of the advance was outrageous.

My view was that if a publisher was eager to pay that much for an unwritten book, the publisher had to be confident that the book would be a money-making best seller.

And I didn't doubt that the book would sell big, since conservatives love to read books that echo what they already believe, so they can look up from the page and declare: "See, Myrna? I've been saying all along that everybody should sweat for a living, and he agrees with me. That Newt is a smart fella."

The plot thickened when the publisher turned out to be tycoon Rupert Murdoch, journalism's prince of darkness. It was suggested that Murdoch was slipping Newt the big bucks as a legal bribe because he needed favors from Congress.

I figured, so what? Even if the book advance was a legal bribe, Murdoch never got the short end of any deal, and Newt was probably being underbribed.

But many Republicans got nervous about how the $4.5 million looked to grass-roots Americans and urged Newt to forgo the advance. He pouted, but gave in.

Not that it should have made a bottom-line difference. Instead of being paid now, he would just have to wait until the book was written, printed, and sold, and the money rolled in.

Then he would collect his cut -- royalties, as they are called -- about 15 percent of the bookstore price.

And I figured that by waiting for his loot, Newt might do even better, since he and his congressional cheerleaders would have time to lower the tax bracket for best-selling authors who are ranking members of Congress but not a member of a political party that starts with the letter D.

Now, though, I have read a Newsweek item about Newt and his book that deeply troubles me. If not deeply, then superficially, but I'm still troubled.

Because he doesn't have the big advance from Murdoch, Newt can't find a top-drawer writer who will ghostwrite his book. They don't come cheap, and they want to be paid up front. As Samuel Johnson might have said: Ghosts they might be, but blockheads they ain't.

He's going to use a ghostwriter. I'm surprised and disappointed.

Yes, I know that most books by athletes, movie stars, politicians and accused wife-killers are ghostwritten. But who expects a slam-dunker, a script-reader, a vote hustler or a wife-slayer to know how to type, much less spell?

But Newt is more than a politician. He is also some kind of college professor. Besides running for office, he has never been anything but an academic. College professor types are always writing books. Most of them are dull stuff, with footnotes that hurt your eyes, but the spelling is good. And in their spare time, some even write spicy novels about middle-age college professors who sleep with coeds. The old scamps.

So here we have Newt pouting because he couldn't take $4.5 million for a book he wasn't even going to write. That's what's shocking.

The hard part of writing a book or writing anything is the writing. Writing is not yammering into a tape recorder. It is not having your aides bundle up a bunch of disjointed position papers and old speeches and shove them at a hired scribe.

It is staring at a blank piece of paper or empty screen and thinking: "Only 150,000 words and I'll be finished. Get on your mark, get set . . ."

That's the real work. Work. Remember that word, Newt? You should because you are always talking about how wonderful it is for the soul and how everybody should do it.

And I agree, although I still find merit in the words of Slats Grobnik, who once said: "If work is so good for ya, how come they got to pay you to do it?"

Now it turns out that our work-loving Newt doesn't want to do the work himself. Hired help for the heavy lifting. How Republican of him.

I guess it's nice nonwork if you can find it.

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