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A Footnote For Him On The Way To Greater Things

January 20, 2012, 5:06 pm

Ronald Reagan with Newt Gingrich
What did you say your name was?

Reading this Wall Street Journal article about Newt Gingrich’s short but odd career as a history professor,* I felt the need to explore what the other people in the story were thinking. Obviously, I have no direct knowledge of West Georgia College or the people there, but I have been at an academic institution for a while.

In addition to the normal application materials, Gingrich submitted his reading list for the last three months to the history department at WGC. He had read 26 books, though they were “too eclectic for a specialist” Gingrich confessed in his letter to the department. Nonetheless, Benjamin Kennedy, the chair, talked to him on the phone, thought he sounded nice, and hired him. Even early on, Gingrich was not shy:

A year into his first full-time teaching job, Newt Gingrich applied to be college president, submitting with his application a paper titled “Some Projections on West Georgia College’s Next Thirty Years.”

According to a history professor, this “‘drew a chuckle’” from administrators. Gingrich did not get the job, needless to say, but he applied undeterred for the chairship of the history department when it came open the next year. This was not funny. It was one thing to apply for the Presidency, but presumptuous to apply for a job with real power. Gingrich’s application was not greeted “so kindly.” Kennedy ruefully recalled him as being “Well, he seemed pretty energetic, young, ambitious. God, always that.”

At this point, there seems (I speculate) to have been a meeting of minds between the administration and the history department on how to distract Gingrich into less bothersome pursuits. The answer? A committee!They put him on a two-person committee (who was the other faculty member, I wonder? Genghis Khan?) to work on ideas for updating the college. They did, so the plan apparently worked. Unfortunately for the administrators and faculty hoping for peace and quiet, the two faculty also created something called “The Institute for Directed Change and Renewal” and started trying to shop their services to state institutions throughout Georgia. The freelancing brought him to the attention of the College President, who wrote a stern letter: “‘You are not entitled to financial compensation by any other State of Georgia agency or institution.’”

So, back to the history department Gingrich went. They didn’t particularly like him, as Kennedy recounted:

Most of them thought that he was a blowhard. How you seen that cover of The Week? It has Newt as a hot air balloon. And that’s him alright. He’s a talker. The thing about Newt is he’s clever but he’s not intelligent. A mile wide and an inch deep.

Gingrich was not particularly interested in history, however, spending most of his time on ideas about the future. This gave the historians a chance to pawn him off on another department, the Department of Geography, where his “interest in long-range and broad-range planning for the future…is clearly more appropriate.” How the Department of Geography felt about this is not recorded.

Gingrich was already on his way out altogether, running twice in Congressional races (oddly as the more liberal candidate both times–this was Georgia). He was not publishing, however, which led him to the other option in “publish or perish.” West Georgia denied him tenure in 1978, and, with the Democratic incumbent in his district retiring, Gingrich left the college and successfully ran for Congress again.

Though he now regularly claims while campaigning that he is a historian, Gingrich was noticeably uninterested in history after receiving his Ph.D in 1971. It was, as Kennedy noted, “A footnote for him on the way to greater things.”

*By the way, I’d just like to mention my utter abhorrence at the fact that when millions of Americans hear “historian” they currently think “Newt Gingrich.” It is to barf.

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