Eleven years ago, no one thought that Newt Gingrich could run for president. He was a spent force. He'd resigned as speaker of the House, then gotten divorced, then married his mistress, who was 23 years his junior. Political career: over. Retirement: accomplished.
Gingrich found a hobby. Once a week, more or less, he would log onto Amazon and upload a review of a book he'd just put down. "He does not review all of the books he reads," warned his staff-written reviewer bio—the only part of his Amazon personality that isn't written by him. "You will not find any bad reviews here, just the books he thinks you might enjoy."
It couldn't last forever. Starting in 2005, Gingrich was cranking out a book of his own every 10 months or so. Starting today, he's a candidate for the White House. He hasn't written a new Amazon review since February 2008. "Too busy," explains Gingrich spokesman Rick Tyler. "Had to give it up."
That's too bad. The Gingrich who reviewed 156 books on Amazon was neither the fire starter who led the GOP's 1994 revolution nor the guy who told National Review that President Obama can only be understood through the prism of "Kenyan anti-colonial thinking." He was a smart nerd with a lot of time on his hands. If you read his entire collected Amazonian oeuvre, you can watch as an easily entertained quantum physics junkie slowly realizes that he needs to get back into politics and set the rest of us straight—one last time.
Gingrich was a master of blurb-speak; it's a surprise he didn't end up cited on the back covers of more paperbacks. On Robert B. Parker's thriller Potshot: "Parker has done it again." On Mark Bowden's drug war classic Killing Pablo: "Bowden has done it again." On Ken Follett's Jackdaws: "Follett has done it again."
And the Amazonian Gingrich was ahead of his time on foreign policy. He stayed that way by reading a mix of popular histories and spy thrillers. Joshua's Hammer, a David Hagberg novel that Gingrich reviewed shortly before 9/11, posited a fictional threat and its aftermath from a terrorist who, at that point, was known mostly for the bombing of the USS Cole.
"The plot involves bin Laden sympathizers in Central Asia that may have infiltrated the vulnerable Russian system," Gingrich explains. "Bin Laden wants to use this threat to achieve an American withdrawal from his homeland of Saudi Arabia. The United States deciding it can take no chances launches a preemptive strike using Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit bin Laden's camp. Nevertheless, the action neither kills him nor hurts the nuclear weapon. Bin Laden then decides to use the weapon in the United States and specifically targets someone close to the President who is in a very public setting along with thousands of other people."
There are, thankfully, no spoilers. There is, however, a strong conclusion: "It will get you to think hard about the real dangers of terrorism and the challenge of creating a strong enough system to defeat it."
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.
TODAY IN SLATE
More Than Scottish Pride
Scotland’s referendum isn’t about nationalism. It’s about a system that failed, and a new generation looking to take a chance on itself.
What Charles Barkley Gets Wrong About Corporal Punishment and Black Culture
Why Greenland’s “Dark Snow” Should Worry You
Three Talented Actresses in Three Terrible New Shows
Why Do Some People See the Virgin Mary in Grilled Cheese?
The science that explains the human need to find meaning in coincidences.
Happy Constitution Day!
Too bad it’s almost certainly unconstitutional.