History Op-eds January 31, 2012: Noah Feldman: Historian-in-Chief Newt Gingrich Can’t Shake His Past

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

History Buzz

HISTORY BUZZ: HISTORY NEWS RECAP

Historian-in-Chief Gingrich Can’t Shake His Past: Noah Feldman

Source: Bloomberg, 1-30-12

I was driving when I heard the latest Republican front-runner intoning that “the centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” He went on from there, but I was already grinning from ear to ear. Newt Gingrich had me at Alinsky.

What excites me is not the preposterousness of the statement. No, there isn’t actually any conflict between the idea that America stands alone and the outlook of the proudly independent inventor of community organizing, who once said, “I’ve never joined any organization — not even the ones I’ve organized myself.” And, yes, the Tea Party is a perfect example of anarchic Alinskian organization. But those are just silly facts, not reasons for pure joy in the driver’s seat.

What I love was the absurdity of Newt Gingrich apparently believing that the name Saul Alinsky would have any kind of meaning to the Americans listening to him. Alinsky died in 1972. His 1971 book, “Rules for Radicals,” is a classic — but it is a cult classic, known largely to community organizers and the experts who study them. (Or it was: Thanks to Gingrich, the paperback became the No. 1 seller in Amazon.com’s “civics” category.)

Who believes it’s good campaign politics to attack a relatively unknown visionary who has been dead for 40 years? A historian, that’s who. Gingrich just can’t help himself. Sure, he wants to be president. But more than that, he wants to teach us some history.

A Critical Progressive

Gingrich would not be the first historian president. That distinction properly belongs to Theodore Roosevelt. While serving as governor of New York, Roosevelt wrote and published a full-dress biography of Oliver Cromwell, a book one reader called “a fine imaginative study of Cromwell’s qualifications for the governorship of New York.” Woodrow Wilson, so far the only president to hold a Ph.D., got his doctorate in political science and history. Gingrich, for his part, has the Ph.D. in history that Teddy lacked, not to mention more than two dozen published books. (Although his works of history, and several historical novels, have a co-author, William Forstchen.)

But the technicality of academic achievement is secondary to the question of Gingrich’s self-conception, which is as historical as it could be. Not only did he write his Tulane University dissertation on Belgian education policy in the colonial Congo, he also was hired as an assistant professor at West Georgia College to teach European history — a job he held for several years.

Gingrich’s files from his time at West Georgia, posted online by the Wall Street Journal, are telling. They begin with the wonderful moment in an importuning letter of application where he explains that, “I am more a critical progressive seeking reform rather than a new leftist.”…READ MORE

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