Technology, not politics is focus for Gingrich

April 28, 2001|By Gregory Kane

NEWT GINGRICH - that would be Newt the Brute or Newt the Demon to you liberals - ascended the stage in Shriver Hall at the Johns Hopkins University to address the 300 or so students. Those who thought they were in for a conservative diatribe were soon rudely awakened.

You remember Gingrich. For conservatives, he's the hero who led Republicans when they regained both houses of Congress in 1994. For liberal Democrats, he's the man who helped cheat them out of such leadership, which they had come to think of as their birthright, not something they had to earn at the polls. For liberal leaders in black America - in fact, they believe they are the only legitimate African-American leadership - Gingrich was the mean old white boy who helped dismantle welfare. Mind you, most blacks aren't on welfare. Most blacks, 75 percent of them, if truth be told, are in the middle class. But it's usually conservatives who point out this truth. Liberal blacks can't afford to mention it. Such observations tend to minimize the victim status.

But Gingrich wasn't at Hopkins last week to talk about conservatism, or race, or the famous "Contract With America" he and his fellow Republicans espoused when they won control of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. Gingrich talked about technology and how it would change - in fact, already has changed and continues daily to change - the world of the 20-somethings in the audience.

"How many of you have ever used an ATM [card] to pump gas?" Gingrich asked audience members. Most raised their hands.

"Now we know how many of you are from New Jersey," he quipped. Gingrich established early on that he would not be the plodding, boring speaker Ralph Nader had been some weeks earlier. Whatever his flaws, he knows how to keep an audience's rapt attention.

"How many of you use the ATM [card] to pump gas because you didn't feel like talking to anybody?" he asked, as the onlookers chuckled.

"How many of you have used an ATM machine to get cash?" Gingrich asked the audience members. Nearly every hand shot up. Just as many stayed up when he asked how many had never written a check for cash.

It was different, the former Speaker of the House emphasized, a mere 30 or so years ago. Gingrich remembered how folks had to find some way to get to a bank before 3 p.m. on Fridays to cash their paychecks. That's how much technology had changed the world in a little over a quarter of a century. Gingrich, acting more as historian than as a once powerful political figure who was forced to resign from Congress in 1998 for an ethics violation, called the invention of the telegraph one of the most significant scientific leaps in human history.

"It reduced communication time to a matter of minutes, not weeks," Gingrich said. He told the tale of a purse snatcher in England who got caught with the help of the telegraph. The miscreant would hang around train stations waiting to snatch the purses from unsuspecting women. When the deed was done, he would hop onto a train and get off at the next station. But right after one purse snatch, someone telegraphed the next station. Police were waiting for the thief when he alighted from the train. The incident made London's front page news.

After expounding on this technology theme, Gingrich offered his opinion that the United States had to keep abreast of other countries in math and science. Right now, Americans aren't cutting the mustard.

"We're absolutely competitive [with other industrialized countries] at the fourth grade level," he said of American students. "We fall off the charts by the eighth grade."

The reason, Gingrich said, is that math and science are harder. He didn't do too well in calculus. He hinted that that may be the reason he's a historian. But he suggested that Americans need to invest more in math and science.

"When you want a better basketball team, you buy it," Gingrich said, using a professional sports analogy. "When you want a better baseball team, you buy it. Why not give high school students who take calculus a stipend?" The proposal was met with applause from a handful of students, who we can assume had been there - taken high school calculus - but hadn't done that, i.e. gotten paid for it.

"Son, I like the cut of your jib," I said to myself from my seat. I knew there was something about this Gingrich guy I liked. He had touched on a subject most American politicians don't even talk about. Both President George W. Bush and former Vice President Al Gore tried to make themselves the education candidates in the last election. They both claimed to be for education, as if anybody is against it. But neither addressed the poor performance of American students in math and science vis-a-vis that of students in other industrialized countries. That's why I voted for neither one.

It's too bad that Gingrich guy wasn't running.

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