What’s So Scandalous About the Gingrich College Course?

The common assumption in news stories and commentaries about Newt Gingrich is that the Speaker misused tax exempt money to teach a partisan college course. But that assumption goes almost wholly uninspected. Few people know what actually was taught in the course,”Renewing American Civilization.” Media accounts have utterly failed to give details on it. That is entirely unnecessary, for the classes were video taped and the tapes have been for sale for three years through a “1-800” number (none of which profits Gingrich personally).
Seeing the charge of alleged ethics violations start to develop last fall I decided to get a full set of the tapes. “Oh, joy,” my wife said dryly when they arrived in a big box, “twenty hours of Newt Gingrich!” With a somewhat heavy heart myself, I sat down at the VCR. But, fortunately, Gingrich at length is far more nuanced and interesting than the sound bite Gingrich on the TV news.

At heart, as he told the Ethics Committee, Gingrich is a professor. Years ago, when he first entered Congress, I visited his office several times, and before I could get to my business I had to hear all about the latest four or five books he had read. Then he would wait expectantly for me to write down the titles. I’m told he still does it. Sen. Pat Moynihan of New York, another former academic, will make you listen at length to his interpretations of history, but at least he doesn’t expect you to take notes.

Gingrich on camera in front of a class is just the same, only now he has assembled his ideas into a public policy tour of grand ambition. The title, “Renewing American Civilization,” sounds grandiose, but the product turns out to be well-organized and coherent. It is something he almost alone in Congress (again excepting Moynihan) could have accomplished.

Gingrich argues for American exceptionalism, describing from history the decisve effects inventors and entrepreneurs have had upon our economic rise and the moral as well as self-interested grounds for an internationalist foreign policy and free trade. His grasp of technology’s role in shaping a better future is masterful. At the same time, he recounts with specificity the unintended effects of sixty years of welfare state policies onAmerican culture, leaving us with two societies–the educated and uneducated, the successful and the unsuccessful. His examination of inner city problems is one of serious concern. Finally, he analyzes the economic and social strategies that various individuals have proposed to restore to all citizens’ control over their own destinies.

Having once taken the famous college course on American Intellectual History taught by Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., a politically active Democrat, I found the Gingrich class comparably engaging. There is this distinction, however: Gingrich’s course is less partisan. It displays a Gingrich conversant with a wide array of knowledge and able to synthesize it. He is fair-minded and positive. He frequently presents noted Democrats and other liberals in a favorable light.

Many Republicans cannot be thrilled, for example, that Gingrich dotes on Alvin and Heidi Toffler, authors of “The Third Wave.” Once the noted literary couple get off the familiar theme of the hunter-farming society yielding to the Industrial Revolution, which yields in turn to the Information Revolution, they are given to expressing alarmist environmental and social concerns that make conservatives gnash their teeth. On the night before the recent presidential election, Gingrich’s class on the role of volunteers in American public life, carried nationally on Mind Extention University cable tv, included generous tributes to former President Jimmy Carter and to handicapped activist Max Cleland, even though Cleland was on the ballot the next day as a Democratic candidate for the US Senate in Georgia (he won).

Maury Kennedy, a businessman who took the Gingrich course a couple of years ago and now markets the tapes, complains of the ethics charges, “I manage this course every day of the week and I fail to see what partisan political benefit he (Gingrich) or anyone else gets out of it.” The course is not a political recruiting device. About 7500 people subscribe to a newsletter that follows the course themes.

This confirms what I suspected all along. Gingrich is accused of using this non-profit course and the colleges where he taught it on behalf of his partisan objectives, specifically those of his action organization, GOPAC. The reality is closer to the reverse: he initially used GOPAC and his political connections to start an academic course that refines his philosophical and academic interests. But there is nothing morally wrong with that.

It often is on the side of their virtues rather than their vices that politicians fail to guard themselves, which is how they fall into the kind of procedural mistakes with which Gingrich’s political opponents would like to ensnare him now. Particularly when you are dealing with a politician who also is an intellectual, it often is impossible to separate the man of action from the man of ideas. From the standpoint of public interest, it is an error to try too hard to do so.

There is some danger that Gingrich’s college course will be used as an excuse to further restrict use of tax exempt educational moneys, a move with potential to throttle, rather than improve, public discourse. It would be wiser to broaden tax deductibility to include legitimate educational research conducted by parties and elected officials. Why should Republicans and Democrats be denied the advantages enjoyed by the Chamber of Commerce Foundation or the Sierra Club? Why this cute game where you can call something “conservative” or “liberal” and it’s okay with the professional ethicists, but calling it “Repubican” or “Democrat” makes it unacceptable?

Newt Gingrich may have been careless as he moved his intellectual pursuits from the political to the educational realm, and he was right to apologize for that. But his was the kind of minor failure you must tolerate in a leader or sacrifice the First Amendment–which, above all, protects political speech–and the capacity of representative government to function effectively.

Bruce Chapman

Cofounder and Chairman of the Board of Discovery Institute
Bruce Chapman has had a long career in American politics and public policy at the city, state, national, and international levels. Elected to the Seattle City Council and as Washington State's Secretary of State, he also served in several leadership posts in the Reagan administration, including ambassador. In 1991, he founded the public policy think tank Discovery Institute, where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board and director of the Chapman Center on Citizen Leadership.