Gingrich prexy run reflects his sense that history is a superhero comic book plus decoder ring

Photo lifted from Roxie's World


Matt Bai of the New York Times claims in this brief piece that “Gingrich Run Reflects His Sense of History.”  Don’t laugh America–Bai says this isn’t a vanity run for president to get his own teevee deal:

[H]aving spent a fair amount of time with Mr. Gingrich for a cover story I wrote for The New York Times Magazine two years ago, I never had much doubt that he was serious this time around. The thing you have to understand about Newt is that he is, by training and temperament, an avid historian, and he is as true a believer as you will ever find in the concept of destiny.

An Army brat growing up, flat-footed and near-sighted, Mr. Gingrich was the perpetual new kid in school who wasn’t going to star on the football team. But he found an outlet for his passion in the histories he read, especially those concerning great heroes. He imagined himself — and, reasonably or not, still does — as a lead protagonist in the history of his own time, a consequential character in the grand American narrative.

In particular, Mr. Gingrich is a devotee of the historian Arnold J. Toynbee, who meditated on the concept of “departure and return” — the idea that great leaders have to leave (or be banished from) their kingdoms before they can better themselves and return as conquering heroes. One of Newt’s heroes, the French general and statesman Charles de Gaulle, embodies just this kind of romantic narrative, having spent 12 years out of power before returning to lead his country. So does Ronald Reagan, who traveled the country after losing his bid for the Republican nomination in 1976, then came roaring back to win it all four years later.

Like Mr. de Gaulle, Mr. Gingrich has been out of power for about 12 years. And if elected president, Mr. Gingrich, like Mr. Reagan, would be 69 when taking the oath of office. (Mr. de Gaulle was 68.) Coincidence? It might seem that way, but I’m guessing he sees something more portentous in the parallels.

Ugh.  This is not serious historical analysis, either by Bai or Gingrich.  This is history as a comic book/decoder ring gimmick.  (H/t to Roxie at Roxie’s World for the photoshopped beauty above.)  First of all, because real historians do nuance and complexity and resist simple answers to complex questions, I know of no actual historians who are of the personality or temperament of Newt Gingrich.  This is not a slam on Gingrich–there’s a darn good reason why there haven’t been a lot of good historians-turned-politicians in the last century.  (OK–that was a slam on Gingrich.)  The job descriptions, and the temperaments of those who gravitate towards these different fields, are almost diametrically opposed.

Secondly–and this is another slam on Gingrich–how many professional historians reference the histories of Arnold Toynbee (1889-1975) any more, unless they’re writing about his colonialist policy work?  Outside of surveys of British History, I’m guessing that he really doesn’t come up in conversations among professionals much these days, because his brand of history has been pretty thoroughly discredited over the past fifty years or so as colonialist, unapologetically imperialist, and cyclical rather than linear.  Toynbee peddled a kind of history that I’m sure was very soothing while the sun set on the British Empire, but his work is roundly viewed as reactionary in the extreme these days.  (At least, that’s my impression–you British historians step up and let me know if I’ve got it wrong here.)

But by the decoder-ring logic of “Great Men and Famous Deeds”-style history, I suppose it makes perfect sense to think that the person who will be 68 or 69 in January of 2013 will of course be elected President of the U.S. in 2012.  A real historian would probably point out that as a former Governor of California, Ronald Reagan had been elected by a much larger constituency than Gingrich’s Georgia house district.  A real historian would also probably point out that although Regan was divorced, he only divorced once (not twice), wasn’t a notorious adulterer, and never converted to Catholicism, all of which might be something of a deal-breaker among the Protestant God Squad wing of the modern Republican party.  You modern European historians can take on the Gingrich self-comparison to De Gaulle.  I don’t have enough background or context on De Gaulle to really grok that one, but somehow I don’t see the failed impeachment of Bill Clinton as comparable to having been the leader of the Free French Forces during World War II.  (Just my professional instincts, I guess.)

Finally–where in the brilliantly predictive “cycles of history” theories did it say that an African American man with a distinctly non-Anglo-American name would be elected President in 2008?  Just askin’.  History isn’t random, but there are no “laws of History” that guide it or the study of history.

So, in sum:  this bit of fluff makes both Gingrich and Bai look pretty silly.  (Kind of like that “The Flash” costume on Joe Biden.  And I get the logic of Obama as Captain America, but why couldn’t they make him one of the marquee names of the Marvel Comics’ series?  After all, he is the President.)

UPDATE, 8:15 MDT:  This “Gingrich is inspired by history” is clearly a meme being trolled by his campaign pretty hard.  Brian Naylor at NPR filed a report on Morning Edition today whose lede is that Gingrich was inspired to go into public service by a visit to Verdun as a teenager in the 1950s.  Oy.  It’s very strange, because neither Gingrich, nor his biographer (a former colleague), nor Naylor explain exactly what about Verdun was so inspiring other than the awesome carnage and environmental destruction.  And because Gingrich is hardly an anti-war candidate, I don’t really get the connection that seems so self-evident.  (Judge for yourself.) 

One would hope that reporters would be a bit more skeptical about grandiose historical hero-worship like this crapola, but then again, his background as a history professor is one of the quirky facts about Gingrich that they like to trot out in the service of their narratives.  Hey–can we FOIA all of his official correspondance while he taught at West Georgia College?  After all, he launched three campaigns for Congress from that job!

45 thoughts on “Gingrich prexy run reflects his sense that history is a superhero comic book plus decoder ring

  1. Maybe he’s been reading Simon Scarrow’s Napoleon and Wellington series, which compares them on the basis that they were born in the same year and eventually end up leading troops against each other. Actually, they are perfectly decent reads, if you don’t probe the history too much, but the idea that they have parallel lives that can be compared is just ridiculous. One man is the leader of France by age 30, later Emperor, and King of Italy, with a spectacular military career. The other has the rather dull, predictable life of younger son of the British aristocracy.


  2. Somewhere I have a VHS tape someone sent me of Gingrich teaching his “Renewing American Civilization” class at Kennesaw State U back in, probably, the early 90s. This surely won’t surprise anyone, but Gingrich is a really sh*tty teacher.


  3. (Your NY Times link is broken above, although it’s easy to find via Google.)

    Gingrich does, apparently, have a PhD in European history, but I never would have known it from Bai’s blog post. (And also according to Wikipedia, he is a dinosaur enthusiast. No doubt there’s some fascinating extrapolation about his public policies that could similarly be drawn from that interest.)


  4. I like the return from exile theme. Maybe I too can return from exile in a dozen or so years. Do you think there will be any history jobs in the US in 12 years? Or should I plan on staying in Africa longer than that?


  5. History–or something that calls itself history–has always been the go-to discipline for preening, prosperous, aging male readers. These consumers love a dead d00d who, fueled by his unstoppable greatness, rose to power. Look what gets peddled in airport bookstores to the business-travel market. I don’t think Newt would recognize what people on this site are writing and reading.


  6. Thanks, Retrochef–I fixed it.

    Back when Gingrich came to national prominence, I was in grad school myself finishing a Ph.D. in History, so I remember Gingrich’s past as a history proffie very well. (I had assumed that most readers of this blog knew that–my apologies for not including that intel in the post!)

    IIRC his Ph.D. thesis is about education policy in the Belgian Congo after WWII. (For a thesis written in the late 1960s or early 1970s, that would barely have qualified as a history dissertation, I should think.) Here’s a blog post that describes it. In short–we can see why he’s such a big admirer of Toynbee, because in the words of the previously linked blogger, “the whole thing is kind of a glorified white man’s burden take on colonial policy that was almost certainly out of vogue in the early 1970’s. Gingrich wrote this as the Black Consciousness and Black Power movements were approaching their pinnacles. It was most decidedly not the time to be arguing that white European masters did a swell job ruling black Africans through a system that ensured that most Congolese would never get a real education.”


  7. Lady Prof: Oh, I think Gingrich would recognize it for the un-American, unpatriotic unreconstructed Marxist Feminazi deconstructionist revisionism that it is.

    Oh, and let’s not forget: this blog harbors many Hate America Firsters who don’t believe in American Exceptionalism.


  8. I was mostly just surprised to learn he was a “real” historian, perhaps more so because Bai’s approach sounded a lot more like “Here are some books Gingrich read and what he thinks of them and therefore he is a historian” — a low enough bar that I’d qualify as a historian as well.

    Enjoyed the review of his dissertation 😀


  9. Having collected comic books throughout my youth and read them throughout my adulthood, I must take issue with one part of this post: many of the comic books I read (superhero and non-superhero) exhibit a good deal more thoughtfulness and nuance than either Bai’s piece or Gingrinch’s understanding of history. I’m offended on behalf of writers and artists everywhere. (Mostly tongue in cheek, but I do think some of the better runs in the Justice League series have more intellectual heft than Matt Bai’s work.)


  10. Yes, John–sorry about that! I didn’t mean to impugn comic books by the comparison. I think you’re right that Toynbee’s work compared to the Justice League comes out the loser.


  11. So, Gingrich vs. De Gaulle. Hmmm…

    Cranky, egotistical leader of quixotic, unexpectedly successful revolt against established executive power? Close, but edge De Gaulle by virtue of Vichy state being allied with Nazi Germany.

    Cranky, egotistical leader of virulently anti-communist government obsessed with purging political competitors and restoring mythical national grandeur? Close, but edge De Gaulle by virtue of more “vigorous” purging methods.

    Moral crusader mired in personal scandal? Gingrich.

    Major architect of European unification? De Gaulle.

    Prone to grandiloquent historical self-comparisons, great-man vision of history, and theories of “destiny”? Tie.

    Shut down national government in effort to force through major reforms of the state? Tie.

    Resigned after being deemed “too old, too self-centred, too authoritarian, too conservative, and too anti-American” (Wikipedia on De Gaulle)? Tie.

    12 years in the wilderness before being “called” back to rescue the nation? De Gaulle by virtue of the rescue being necessitated by civil war and revolt in the armed forces.

    By my calculation, De Gaulle wins the conservative-great-man race. And Gingrich joins Nicolas Sarkozy and Jean-Marie Le Pen in comparing himself to the General. Not necessarily the company one would want to be in, either ideologically or politically!


  12. Thanks, Ellie–just what I was looking for. I felt more confident asking for advice on De Gaulle than trying to figure it out from my “research” on Wikipedia.

    (The only thing I know about CDG is that he left his name on an awesome airport.)


  13. Being Catholic is no longer a deal-breaker for Republicans. In the past Catholic meant Democratic values, it now means neo-con mentality. If not evident in this election cycle, then definitely in the next.


  14. I think it’s more the adultery, the second divorce, the third wife, AND the conversion thing (along with his pathetically self-seving explanations that embarass even conservatives) that I think will cause some of the God Squadders to shun Gingrich, but you may be right. I’ve long thought that our next Catholic President will be a Republican.

    (Rick Santorum!!?!)


  15. A guy who was a third-year T.A. when I was a first-year at BFU, and who had the carrel-desk next to mine in the T.A. room, shortly thereafter finished up and became a colleague of Gingrich’s at W. Georgia. Indeed, from the timing of things, Newt might have chaired the search, not that people got hired by “searches” in those days. I never heard anything about that and didn’t even know it for years after that. But I’m looking right now at the Gingrich squib in the 1978 edition of Bowker’s _Directory of American Scholars_, Vol. 1, History (regrettably now discontinued, I think).

    In addition to being an Assistant Prof. of History, he was listed as COORDR ENVIRON STUDIES. (I’d like to see a syllabus, or even a mission statement, from that post). It says that in 1971 he had been a consultant in the school of info and computer sciences at Georgia Tech, and in 1973 an instructor of “Directed Change and Renewal,” presumably at the same place. He was a member of the World Futures Society, and listed his research interests as “Futurism, process of change, management and communications.” Mail was to go to him at Environ Studies, rather than the History Department.

    As a lapsed counterfactualist I’ve sometimes wondered how we’d have to re-write the last chapters of new survey books if he was still grading bluebooks in Carrolton, GA, and occasionally trolling this blog.

    In a slight gesture of fairness to Bai, he did point out higher up in his piece that Gingrich had never been elected to anything beyond one congressional district, and in an ironic aside noted that the last president elected on so thin an electoral basis was Eisenhower, who “had a few things going for him, like having saved the world.” But I agree, one would hope for a bit more skepticism and detachment from the subject from the auteur of this piece and of a NYT Mag profile.


  16. Indyanna–thanks for the intel on Gingrich’s career at West Georgia. You’re right that Bai notes Gingrich’s modest voter base–and that he implies somehow that being Supreme Allied Commander beats Congressman, any day.

    (SAC is a good title, but my vote for best title still goes for First Sealord of the Admiralty. You get a snappy uniform with that too, plus one of those awesome Gilbert & Sullivan-style naval commander hats!)


  17. I’m picturing a tableau of a group of grumpy old brigadiers and sealords sitting around a wooden table in Whitehall Street in 1777, with open bottles of Scotch and half-eaten meatpies everywhere, waiting for news that Gen’l Burgoyne had made it safely to Albany! 🙂


  18. Hey, if comic books are coming back into vogue, I call dibs on the new grand historical theory to take advantage of this. Away with cycles and down with lines! We’re working with the multiverse (TM)!

    Gingrich as some sort of great historian? Ah, NYT, you make me laugh with your puff pieces on politicians from either side of the political spectrum!

    Also, if we’re talking about titles, I dibs “Admiral of the Ocean Sea”. Either that or the epithet “the Mighty”. The latter might be better-suited for my new grand theory, anyway!


  19. I think Columbus was the AOS. It might well have been rum, but I’m thinking they would have had some fighting Scots in the Scituation Roome as well. Now that I’m script-doctoring this pilot, I think we’ll have them waiting up to hear that John Andre made it back from West Point in one piece and that Arnold had succeeded in handing the place over. Lots of snuff all over the roome. Maybe we could get the theater where Spiderman crashes and burns for the last time next month if anyone has some stimulus funding to invest!


  20. Also I think we can learn a lot about Newt’s historical sensibilities by reading some of his “alternative history” novels in which the glorious Confederacy wins the Civil War. Scary stuff.


  21. I actually watched a video of one of Newt’s “Restoring America” (or whatever it was) classes. The first chunk of it was all about how men were biologically programmed to be leaders — something about chasing giraffes, no lie. Stomach-churning stuff.


  22. I think I’ve read about that before, Notorious. He’s a walking bag’o’barf. What a shock that he’s into evo-psych!

    Much to my surprise, I think I agree with Michael Tomasky’s assessment of Gingrich, which is that he’ll never be President because he can’t stop saying weird, assy things that will curry no favor and in fact only piss people off.

    (In that respect, I kind of sympathize with him.)

    Thanks on the explanation of Admiral of the Ocean Sea. It’s a pretty stupid book title–although I know of some that are worse. (We all do, I’m sure.)


  23. Prof. Morison himself, a Boston Brahmin and well past fighting age, was commissioned a lt. commander in the Naval Reserve in 1942 (this is all-wiki, I should say), and rose to the rank of Rear Admiral in the reserves while writing naval history before retiring in 1951 to return to Harvard. I think he was thereafter known as “Admiral” M. at the head of his seminar table before going emeritus some years later. His wiki entry calls him an “amphibious historian,” which is pretty amusing. I’m envisioning wayward dissertators “walking the plank,” which, of course, is not so amusing.


  24. Newt the historian, Paul Ryan the courageous realistic economist and, of course, Obama the bright and intelligent



  25. I didn’t realize that Toynbee had such a bad reputation these days.

    The article didn’t give me the impression that the author was trying to portray Gingrich as a great historian. It seems like the emphasis is more on Gingrich’s belief that he has a “destiny”. It’s not serious historical analysis, but that doesn’t seem to have ever been the intention.


  26. Historiann on 11 May 2011 at 7:23 am #

    “Lady Prof: Oh, I think Gingrich would recognize it for the un-American, unpatriotic unreconstructed Marxist Feminazi deconstructionist revisionism that it is.

    Oh, and let’s not forget: this blog harbors many Hate America Firsters who don’t believe in American Exceptionalism.”

    I’m so excited that you obviously know exactly who I am in the secret, evil heart of me!



  27. Just out of curiosity, do any of Historiann’s readers who earn their living professing history consider themselves “avid historians”? That phrase suggests an amateur passion — I’m a historian, but also an avid hiker/knitter/singer whatever. And it makes sense of the self-serving version of history he’s apparently avid about.
    Just wondering…


  28. Susan–great pickup. Personally, I’d be very avid about a theory of history that predicted an ultimate reward for my brilliance, tremendous future success, and vindication by history.

    And gretchen: how did I guess? I know who most of you sickos are. Thank goodness I’m getting way more hits these days on my blog from people googling “Pocahontas,” “map of Canada,” “beer,” “Caroline Kennedy,” and “sneetches” than for “hot 40-year old women” and other things I’m too embarassed to write here.


  29. “Admiral of the Ocean Sea” was the title given to Columbus by Ferdinand and Isabella. The “Ocean Sea” was the name of the “sea” west of Europe and Africa that Columbus sailed — we might think of it as the Atlantic Ocean today. But “Ocean” was the name that, from at least the time of Ptolemy, Mediterranean peoples had given to the great river that surrounded the entirety of the “world”. That’s why Columbus, the first to master it by sailing to “the Indies” and back, was named Admiral of the Ocean Sea.


  30. Comrade PP is right. Back when Bush wanted to privatize Social Security, Bai told us we needed a new system for the 21st century, rather than some antique from the Thirties. I haven’t seen him go back to the topic in the light of the crash and would it would have done to fledgling private accounts . . .


  31. @Historiann – I can’t tell you how delighted I am to learn that some d00d who googles “hot 40 year old women” ends up at this blog!


  32. FWIW: Almirante de la Mar Oceana

    I think it has a certain flair in Spanish. (It sounds better is Spanish because it’s clear grammatically that “oceana” is a modifier to the noun “mar” rather than how it sounds in English, like two nouns crammed together.)


  33. Exactly as I suspected. “Ocean Sea” just sounds like a poor/overly literal translation.

    First Sealord of the Admiralty, definitely. That even beats Supreme Allied Commander. (It makes me wonder, though: who’s the Second Sealord of the Admiralty? Does the First Sealord have a number one who’s called a number two?)


  34. Way off topic – It sounds like the most literal translation into English would be “Admiral of the Oceanic Sea”, which unfortunately sounds even more awkward than “…. Ocean Sea”, at least to me.


  35. I stumbled on this odd title in the stacks today, don’t know why I was in that row, but which reminded me of this sub-thread, in its (the title’s, not the thread’s) redundancy and terminological fussiness. The things we call things and the things specialists call the same things are often very different:

    The global coastal ocean : interdisciplinary regional studies and syntheses / ed. Allan R. Robinson and Kenneth H. Brink. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, c2006.

    As to Sea Lords, if you’re an island and the Armada might come back, how can you have too many? I say crowd on more Sea Lords and lay off a few Home (Under) Secretaries.


  36. Well, there is a recession on and we all have to tighten our belts, even in priority areas like lording over the sea.

    Although I could just see the Fifth Sea Lord’s defence of his role: ‘Global warming and the melting of the ice caps has increased both the volume and surface area of sea. This has increased the level of work and responsibility of the Sea Lords, both at home and in international territory. The pond, that before recent flooding was the city of Gloucester, is particularly unstable and requires intensive lording over by the Fith Sea Lord. As a result, this role is key to the stability of the British nation, and should be prioritised over the NHS, education budgets and other public services.’


  37. Toynbee actually came up in one of the books on my US History exam reading list — Donald White’s The American Century: The Rise and Decline of the United States as a World Power. White presents Toynbee as an example of a sort of American imperialism-cum-nationalism peddled to the masses just after WWII by the powers that be, in order to make Americans comfortable with their designated imperial role.

    It’s an interesting analysis, but it has absolutely nothing to do with the poppycock that comes from Gingrich’s mouth — namely, taking Toynbee seriously as a “modern” historian.


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