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What Newt Gingrich's Amazon.com book reviews say about his politics.
Gingrich the reviewer/wonk is an optimist, but not a fool. One of the first novels he reviewed after 9/11 was Humphrey Hawksley's Dragon Strike, a novel about a fictional war between Pakistan and China. He gave it four stars, but the title of the review is "Unlikely Scenario Post 9/11." "The recent terrorist attacks on America make this novel slightly less likely," Gingrich says, "because we are almost certainly going to see a stronger American military and a closer American relationship with Pakistan, which will have a stabilizing influence."
But real-time political policy didn't feature too much in Gingrich's reviews. It may have been that the short blurb-plus-instant-thought format restricted what he could say. Only occasionally did he really let loose with an essay, and it was typically a reaction to some sweeping work of history. Gingrich fell in love with Victor Davis Hanson's Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, "a book any sophisticated student of war or any citizen concerned about the role of warfare in national survival would want to read."
Whenever he encountered a history that lent strength to his theories about the tort law threat, he gushed. Norman Cantor's history of the bubonic plague revealed something: "The upper class in the middle ages spent an enormous amount of energy contracting, suing and maneuvering in the legal system." Larry Kramer's The People Themselves, published in 2004, would "change history," Gingrich writes, with everything it revealed about the abuses of the law.
Gingrich was often frustrated by stuff like this. He generally liked Atlantis Found, one of Clive Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels. Reading it shortly after 9/11, though, he wondered whether Cussler had punted on his choice of villains. "It is fascinating," Gingrich writes, "that there are far more novels about totally improbable Nazi revenge than there are about tragically real Islamic medieval terrorism and there are far more novels about bad Germans 56 years after the Second World War than there are about all too real current acts of terror against Israel and the West or for that matter the terrorists who seek to destabilize India, the Philippines, Indonesia, etc."
There are plenty of thriller reviews in the Gingrich archives, and a few big pop science books about string theory and the Internet. These reviews are more revealing than the policy wonk stuff, which isn't surprising. We're talking about the politician who, in To Renew America, mentioned the influence of Toynbee's A Study of History in the same paragraph as Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels. Thrills and speculative fiction can, to use a favorite Gingrich phrase, "stretch the mind." It might not make sense when you hear Gingrich warning of the danger of electro-magnetic pulse attacks or making analogies between World War II and multiple current conflicts. It makes more sense when you see what fiction he reads.
"If at some future time we discover that someone really vicious has acquired a very advanced weapon system by bribing a disgruntled military member of a decaying system," Gingrich writes in 2002 review, "we should not be surprised if we read Kilo Option."
By the time he wrapped up his reviewing career, Gingrich seemed frustrated. The long-term strategic threats of radical Islam or loose nukes should have been so obvious. The worst-case scenarios had been spelled out by countless novelists many times. By 2007, when he launched American Solutions, he could be confident that no one else in politics knew what he knew; no one else had spent so much time in exile.
The way to look at his political comeback today? Don't think of him as a candidate. Think of him as Miles Bennell at the end of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, mind full of disaster scenarios that only he has seen, screaming at motorists: If you don't listento me, he's shouting, you're next.
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or tweet at him @daveweigel.
Photograph of Newt Gingrich by Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images.