NEWT GINGRICH — THE VACUUM-CLEANER CONSERVATIVE
NEWT GINGRICH — THE VACUUM-CLEANER CONSERVATIVE
The former House speaker is the GOP contender most linked to the world of books. In the 1990s, he recommended books for his House colleagues, mostly business strategy reads such as Alvin Toffler’s “The Third Wave” or Peter Drucker’s “The Effective Executive.” Upon leaving the House in 1998, he became a prolific author, producing 17 books on everything from energy policy to the role of faith in American history.
Writing in the New York Times magazine, Andrew Ferguson recently characterized Gingrich’s books as “evidence of mental exertions unimaginable in any other contemporary politician.” He also identified certain strains in the Gingrich oeuvre, including warnings of a looming Armageddon and faith in the ability of technology to see us through most challenges.
In addition to reading and writing, Gingrich is a prolific reviewer of books. According to The Washington Post, Gingrich reviewed no fewer than 156 titles on Amazon from 2000 to 2008, making him one of the top 500 reviewers. He likes books written by men (he reviewed only six books by women), and was inclined to offer favorable reviews: On Walter Isaacson’s “Benjamin Franklin: An American Life,” for example, Gingrich wrote that “this is a book worth giving any of your friends who would better understand America or any foreigner who wonders at our energy, our resilience, our confidence and our success.”
Despite his omnivorous reading, it’s hard to conclude much about Gingrich’s thinking. Unfortunately, his reading habits reconfirm the rap on him — as the GOP’s supposed man of ideas, he might have difficulty sorting wheat from chaff.
RICK PERRY — THE RED-MEAT CONSERVATIVE
The latest entrant into the GOP race revealed in his most recent gubernatorial campaign that he likes to read novelized Texas histories — including “Not Between Brothers,” by David Marion Wilkinson, and “The Gates of the Alamo,” by Stephen Harrigan — and World War II memoirs, such as “Islands of the Damned: A Marine at War in the Pacific,” by R.V. Burgin, and “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa,” by E.B. Sledge. Both categories hold strong appeal for Republican-base voters but reveal little about Perry’s thinking.
How about the books Perry has written? The first, published in 2008, is “On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For.” It could not be more apple pie. Perry praises small-town America, lionizes the Scouts and takes shots at today’s coddled kids: “As opposed to sports leagues today where no one keeps score, the Scouts keep score.”
His latest, “Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington” (with the foreword written by Gingrich), is very much a campaign book — part biography, part lament about government policies, part celebration of Perry’s Texas record, and part governing philosophy, including a robust vision of states’ rights. Liberal blogger Matt Yglesias says “the book should give political reporters plenty of questions to ask Governor Perry as he introduces himself to a non-Texas constituency.” Overall, Perry’s reading and writing reveal a very political mind at work, conscious of core constituencies and provocative in an era when office-seekers often opt for caution.
The reading lists of the 2012 Republican contenders reflect not only the wide-open nature of the field, but the still-open question of what it means to be a conservative. Reagan left office more than two decades ago, and the GOP still cannot agree on any one person to take his place — let alone a single book to define modern conservatism. There is no latter-day “The Conscience of a Conservative” to pluck off a shelf or download on your Kindle; and there are no Buckleys or Friedmans to write landmark conservative works.
Yet there seems to be a thirst for big books, or at least big ideas, that Republican candidates can use as guiding lights. It may be a coincidence, but the first contender to withdraw from the race, former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, did not really highlight any big books animating his conservatism. (In his own book, “Courage to Stand,” Pawlenty cites Ross Bernstein’s “The Code: The Unwritten Rules of Fighting and Retaliation in the NHL” as an example of the “finest lessons and greatest joys” that the sport of hockey has given him, and explains how it informs his political strategies and dealmaking.)
The variety and unpredictability of the GOP candidates’ reading lists could reflect a willingness to pursue unconventional thinking, for good or for ill, and they contrast with Democratic reliance on a single type of book, which evokes Saint Thomas Aquinas’s warning of hominem unius libri timeo (“I fear the man of a single book”). But the variety could also prove more virtue than defect. The Republicans have become a party of too many ideas, but too few unifying ones beyond low taxes and a newfound fiscal conservatism. This lack of clarity on core principles will be tested in the 2012 primaries, and the results could guide conservatism for years to come.
Tevi Troy is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a former senior aide to president George W. Bush. He is the author of “Intellectuals and the American Presidency: Philosophers, Jesters or Technicians?”
Read Troy’s 2010 Outlook article “For Obama and past presidents, the books they read shape policies and perceptions.”