NOT EVEN PAST JULY 22, 2011
Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign is finished, although it may be a few months before he admits what nearly everyone who follows politics already knows. In the meantime, the loquacious fellow who once spearheaded the conservative insurgency, ran the House of Representatives, and jousted with President Bill Clinton has now become the butt of predictable jokes about his hefty debts, his three marriages, and the staffers who were smart enough to get off his sinking ship.
But, unlike other failed politicians, the former Speaker and soon-to-be former candidate still enjoys a reputation—at least among prominent conservatives—as a figure of learning and insight. In May, Eric Cantor swooned that Gingrich “has always been an ideas man, and I’m sure will provide a lot of positive input in the [presidential] debate.” “No question Newt is an ideas machine, and he’ll add intellectual heft to the debate,” added Mark McKinnon, chief media adviser to both of George W. Bush’s presidential campaigns. Indeed, Gingrich’s many books of fiction and non-fiction and his ability to talk at length about subjects ranging from technology to space travel to dinosaurs have won him a kind of intellectual respect from his ideological peers that a Bachmann or Perry will never achieve. What’s more, the man has a Ph.D in history and taught the subject for eight years at a Georgia college.
Is the reputation deserved? I am not qualified to judge Gingrich’s knowledge of pterodactyls or the merits of establishing a colony on Mars. However, I have just completed his latest book of history: A Nation Like No Other: Why American Exceptionalism Matters. And I can say, with absolute confidence, that it may be the most inaccurate, least intellectual book about our nation’s past I have ever read.
LET’S START WITH his premise. One can certainly make a decent argument that the United States is a nation with exceptional ideals and/or a history distinctive for its economic success—whether that success was due more to brilliant entrepreneurs and industrious workers or to the good fortune of settlers and their progeny who conquered a vast land graced with abundant natural resources, a small native population, and an ocean away from European wars. But, to make that argument convincingly, one would have compare those ideals and that history with those of other nations. After all, something is exceptional only in contrast to some other things.
Gingrich, however, has no time for anything but American history. He merely declares, repeatedly, that the U.S. is different and better than any other place on earth and expects readers to take him on faith. Only America, he asserts, is dedicated to individual freedom, to limited government, to human equality and “to the profound religious principle that recognizes God as the ultimate authority over any government.” The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen? The British tradition of divided powers between the monarch and Parliament? The Iranian and Saudi theocracies? Newt the politician-historian seems to have missed all of these.
Meanwhile, in order to squeeze every big event in America’s past into his laudatory narrative, Gingrich makes some statements that anyone who’s read a high-school history textbook could easily refute. In his view, the Civil War “initially centered around constitutional questions,” none of which he mentions. This is a deeply flawed, and bizarrely mild, way to describe the passions that accompanied debates over the Fugitive Slave Act, expanding slavery into the territories, and accepting Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 election.
And how can one respond to the statement, “Every time America has strayed from the proposition that all men are created by God, and that they are therefore equal, great suffering and turmoil has ensued”? As usual, Gingrich declines to offer any examples of such “times.” The fact that, as Lincoln put it, the partisans of the Union and those of the Confederacy “[b]oth read the same Bible, and pray[ed] to the same God;and each invoke[d] His aid against the other” might have given Gingrich pause. But he does not allow facts to get in the way of his dogma.
Gingrich is also fond of making contradictory assertions that seem designed to give the writers for Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert an easy day at the office. The welfare state, he announces, “is incompatible with human nature because it does not view American citizens as individuals with inherent dignity and rights.” This comes several pages after the author has praised Antonin Scalia’s dissent in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the conservative justice defended a law that forbade any individual in the Lone Star State from having gay sex.
Finally, when Dr. Gingrich condemns the long reach of the federal state, he actually undermines his own argument for American exceptionalism. The twentieth century, he declares, was “the American century”—just as the previous one had been “dominated by Britain,” which then allowed “two world wars and two generations of socialism” to bring it down. (He omits the loss of a global empire as a causal factor, but no matter.) Yet Gingrich bewails the fact that, throughout most of this star-spangled century, Americans kept electing fans of “big government” to run the nation: Progressives, New Dealers, and Great Society liberals who, together, established “massive” programs that ran up the national debt and damaged the economy by increasing taxes. “The American entitlement system,” Gingrich intones, “is, essentially, a federally mandated wealth transfer system from one group of people to another.” How did the U.S. stay so exceptional with such evil class warriors in charge? Gingrich doesn’t explain.
In the 1990s, Gingrich demonstrated a certain skill at political combat and a certain talent for translating right-wing polemics into promises of a better future. But, just as he is now incapable of running a credible campaign, he can’t make any sense of the history of the country he loves.
Michael Kazin’s latest book, American Dreamers: How the Left Changed a Nation, will be published in August. He teaches history at Georgetown University.