Newt Gingrich, author: rolling the dice of destiny

July 16, 1995|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

Newton Leroy Gingrich has two books hitting the shops' shelves right now. Aspiring to an ever more intimate relationship with the populace, he credits both to "Newt Gingrich."

There's nothing wrong with a nickname, defined in my favorite dictionary (Webster's Collegiate, Fifth Edition) as "a name given instead of the one belonging to a person, place or thing, usually descriptive and given in sport."

To nourish that to full flower, of course, would lead to the uncharitable description of the speaker of the House as a salamander of the genus Triturus, an affront I would not commit even in sport.

But there is a certain relevance.

Both books give a sense of "instead of." Reading both left me wishing they had gone all the way, that they were not, somehow, "nickbooks." Both are. But one is nonetheless very important.

The lesser book is "1945" by Newt Gingrich and William R. Forstchen (New York: Baen Books/Simon & Schuster. 382 pages. $24). A novel based on the fantasy that the U.S. stayed out of World War II and Hitler won it, it's unapologetically a thriller.

That it didn't boil my pot could be due to the expurgation, in the final form, of its original opening passages, which were lushly sexual. Otherwise, for concise critical summation I stand in mute awe of Donald E. Westlake's observation in last Sunday's New York Times that "Mr. [Arnold] Schwarzenegger could in this instance play all the Americans and all the Germans."

So, make a buck

Missing: Irony, intricacy, characterization. But c'mon, nobody said it was supposed to do anything but entertain, and make a bit of money. No shame there.

The other book is something else. Very else. If the dice of destiny roll right for Mr. Gingrich, it could become the most important book you will read in the next nine years or so.

It is "To Renew America" (New York: HarperCollins. 260 pages. $24). It is the book that started the controversy over a $4.5 million advance that after much posturing Mr. Gingrich rejected.

A great deal of it is drawn, naturally, from speeches and from lectures given in his "Renewing American Civilization" course. ZTC There is a breathless boosterism that suggests a Rotary lunch more than a classroom.

There are serious weaknesses: It virtually ignores foreign policy, to take one example. But it should be judged as a book of persuasion, not history nor autobiography - as a tutorial, a didactic book.

It celebrates a nostalgia for times before 1965, the date at which Mr. Gingrich says there began "a calculated effort by cultural elites to discredit this civilization and replace it with a culture of irresponsibility that is incompatible with American freedoms as we have known them."

Many who identify with those "elites" will not only reject the substance of this book but ridicule it as superficial. Throughout, it does suffer from a kind of lemonade-and-chicken-salad folksiness. To reject it as inconsequential, however, would ignore its potentially enormous influence.

Though a lot of his writing can be picked apart as less than profound, anybody who dismisses him as some kind of a glib primitive is perilously missing the issue.

The truth is that Mr. Gingrich is both earnest and smart. Not brilliant, in the sense of having a mind that yields truly original ideas or major innovations. But equally, he is not a Hallmark-homily-quoting platitudinist.

Where the Republican Party goes in the next year and three months, and where it may seek to take the nation, are very much up to acts and accidents yet undetermined. Its choice today is roughly between a positive sort of populist conservatism or, on the alternative, an enthusiasm driven mostly by defensiveness, coded rancor, meanness of spirit.

Theocratic fanaticism

Whatever one feels about the merits of Dr. Henry Foster, in the surgeon general confirmation debate, it seems to me, Sen. Phil Gramm ineradicably marked his own political spirit and that of his element of the Republican Party. That indelible identity has two almost independent faces. One is of an unashamed racist; the other, a theocratic fanatic.

I don't believe the supporters and secret sharers of that hideousness add up to anything remotely like a majority constituency in the United States, for all of the present ugliness of spirit.

Thus is it consequential that one of the major subtexts of Mr. Gingrich's book is scrupulous avoidance of those calls to fear, hate and fanaticism. In that, he decisively distances himself from the Gramm cabal.

Why is that important? It is throbbingly palpable that Mr. Gingrich is delighted by the job he has now. But it is equally clear that he stands ready to seize the greater star role within his party.

Sen. Bob Dole holds a lock on the GOP nomination. But he is immensely vulnerable because of age and the shallowness of his support. Even a relatively minor physical illness could wrench him from the running in a matter of hours. Mr. Gingrich is standing by, with Sen. Gramm the main alternative. Even if Mr. Gingrich remains speaker, his role may be closer to prime minister than party captain.

Is it important to know what Mr. Gingrich has to offer, as speaker, as presidential candidate, as premier, as president? If you believe it is, for all its incompleteness and gracelessness, this book is essential reading.

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