What Newt Gingrich Brought to the Discussion

Newt Gingrich isn't my favorite politician, but he's certainly one of the most interesting politicians I've ever interviewed. Actually, I interviewed one of the other politicians in the most-interesting category, Marion Barry, jointly with Newt for a New York Times Magazine cover story about the future of Washington, D.C., which ran 17 years ago (crazy, because I'm only 31.) I would provide a link to this story, except that it was published in the Neolithic era, before the age of links.

Newt, who is dropping out of the Republican primaries approximately five years after it became obvious he couldn't win, isn't a particularly nice person, and I certainly don't appreciate the dog-whistling, and the whole treatment-of-his-wives issue, but I appreciate his curiosity about the world. It took me a while, but I finally figured out who comprises his core constituency. This is not a core constituency admired by many conservatives, but it's a constituency he should be proud to have: Scientists working for the federal government.

In recent weeks, I've run into three different scientists, working in the far reaches of different government bureaucracies, who were fantasizing about the thing that will never be, the Gingrich presidency. They knew in their bones that President Newt would have shared their love of basic science, of conservation, and most notably, of space exploration. One scientist, until recently employed by the Smithsonian, put it to me this way: "Most presidents never visit most of our museums, but with Gingrich, we'd probably have a hard time getting him out of the museums."

Gingrich's enthusiasm for science, for zoos and conservation, and for human exploration of everything worth exploring, makes him stand out in a Republican Party that, among other things, kowtows to partisans of creationism. Gingrich came to mind the other day when I was watching the Space Shuttle Discovery shuffle off into the sunset, and I wrote about why I thought of him in my Bloomberg View column this week. I was watching the shuttle pass over Washington from another shuttle, the Delta shuttle, which then proceeded to break down on the runway of Reagan National:

We returned to the terminal, and I watched on CNN as Discovery finished the journey to its nursing home in the Virginia countryside. Only then did the obvious thought cross my mind: Newt is right.

This isn't a thought that has often crossed my mind, especially over the past several months, but on the matter of space exploration and the role it has played in teaching Americans that they are capable of performing exceptional acts of creativity and bravery, Newt Gingrich is exactly right.

So I called him and told him so. He is, from what I'm told, still busy running for president. But he seemed happy to talk about space and the terrible mistake the Obama administration made by canceling the Constellation program, which was meant to get Americans back to the moon.

Gingrich was particularly keen to talk about his Republican rivals, who had savaged him during a debate in Florida for proposing that the U.S. -- mainly with private funding -- establish a colony on the moon.

This is what Mitt Romney said at the time: "If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired.' The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea."
The small-minded Rick Santorum piled on, saying, "Let's just be honest, we run a $1.2 trillion deficit right now ... and to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes, but it's not a responsible thing."

Gingrich told me he was "shocked that night" by Romney and Santorum. "If I had been clever, I would have said to Romney, 'You would have fired Christopher Columbus and John F. Kennedy because they were proposing daring and large things. They were proposing to go out and discover entire new worlds, and they did.'"

He believes that human settlements on the moon, or on Mars, are inevitable. "I can tell you flatly that there will be a human colony on the moon," he said. "It may be Chinese, but there will be a colony on the moon. Anyone who watches the Chinese space program and doesn't think we're facing a competitor is foolish."