Gingrich's Great-Man Complex, From Sci-Fi to History

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Who's been influencing the former Speaker? Those with far-seeing efforts at transformation are valued most

Newt Gingrich by a pole - AP Photo:Mark Lennihan - banner.jpg


Over at History News Network, Ray Smock, the historian at the House of Representatives until the 1994 Republican takeover, has a piece up on Newt Gingrich's affinity for Isaac Asimov's Foundation Trilogy. "Newt liked the idea of one man shaping the destiny of entire civilizations.  That fictional man, Hari Seldon, was a special breed of historian who frequented a far-off planet called Trantor," he writes.  "Newt found his role model not in his stern stepfather, but in a historian from another planet, a great historian and teacher who thought really big galactic-size thoughts."

It's an affinity Gingrich himself has acknowledged.

"For a high school student who loved history, Asimov's most exhilarating invention was the 'psychohistorian' Hari Seldon," he once wrote.  "The term does not refer to Freudian analysis but to a kind of probabilistic forecasting of the future of whole civilizations.  The premise was that, while you cannot predict individual behavior, you can develop a pretty accurate sense of mass behavior."

Does Gingrich think real leaders can be so forward-thinking?

One hint comes from something he said in a 1995 New Yorker profile:

"Let me say one last thing, because I sometimes startle people, because I'm so intense and I'm so committed to changing things quickly. In the mid-nineteen-twenties, Kemal Ataturk was in the process of modernizing Turkey. He was faced with an enormous problem. The Ottoman Empire had collapsed, the Turkish people had been driven back within the boundaries of what is now modern Turkey. They had an enormous crisis of psychology -- they were a backward country, and yet they knew their future lay in modernization and in understanding the European world and the industrial world better. And he reached the conclusion, after considerable deep and painful thought, that writing in the language pattern they had written in no longer would work, and that they had to change literally the basic script of their language to a Western script.

"He then decided that the only way to make that change was to do it suddenly and decisively... so in a very poor country with very few resources... he said, 'We have to enlist every educated Turk and we have to turn the nation into a classroom.' And in six months' time they transformed Turkish society. It is one of the great heroic acts of the twentieth century... done by an act of inspired emotional and moral leadership by someone who was regarded as the savior of the nation."

It isn't only fictional characters and Founding Fathers that Gingrich has studied as leadership influences. The one common thread in all of them: an abiding belief in the Great Man theory of history. And it extends to the American leaders he most often cites -- Washington, Lincoln, Churchill, FDR and Reagan -- though those choices are a bit more common among politicians in this country. 


Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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