Never let it be said that Newt Gingrich is not a man of the future. Several of them, in fact. But in his case, those futures lie in the past.
I'm referring, of course, not to his campaign -- in which, with his polls rising, Herman Cain fading away, he may well be the man of the future, at least its Republican variant -- but to his literary avocation. Which is revealing of his political predilections as he tries to take on Barack Obama.
The former House speaker and current Republican presidential frontrunner likes to describe himself as a "historian" rather than, say, a lobbyist, in explaining his massive contract with mortgage giant Freddie Mac. (He has a PhD in history from Tulane.) But he's really more in the line of alternate history.
Which happens to be the sort of novels Gingrich mostly writes, though he also has a set of conventional historical novels on the American Revolution.
Alternate history is a branch of science fiction in which the course of history splits from the world as we know it, frequently at one crucial point, which aficionados call a point of divergence, and moves forward into speculative historical fiction.
Gingrich has three major alternate history universes, filled with colorful mavericks, technophilia, loathing for bureaucratic norms, and an evident zest for conflict.
(There are spoilers ahead, so you know.)
But Gingrich has left the reader hanging in two of these three alternate universes, completing only the most conventional and distant in time of the three stories.
* In his first alternate version of World War II, depicted in 1945, the U.S. does not fight Nazi Germany because Hitler does not declare war on us first. Hitler is debilitated for weeks after a plane crash on December 6, 1941, leaving Germany in the hands of a troika of Goring, Goebbels, and Halder, vicious Nazis all but more pragmatic than the darkly romantic fuehrer. He does come back to power, of course, because why would Newt want to write a book on World War II without Hitler?
As a result, the U.S. only fights Japan and back-burners the Manhattan Project, the development of which was actually spurred by the Nazi threat though of course it was used against Japan after most conventional national resources were poured into the war against Germany in the real world. The U.S. defeats Japan much faster, but without America in the fight against Germany, the Soviet Union is defeated and Britain, which Gingrich, in proper Victorian manner, refers to throughout as England, is forced to sue for a tenuous peace.
All this sets up an epic struggle between an America which has partially demobilized, after Roosevelt retires following victory over Japan, and Germany. In this alternate history, FDR is succeeded not by Truman but by a fictional Nebraska Democrat named Andrew Harrison who doesn't appear to be modeled on anyone.
This is the one Gingrich came up with while he was in power as Speaker of the House. It's a wild story, which he never actually ended up finishing, and seems most reflective of where he's coming from, filled with characteristic tropes and foibles. Including the death of General George Marshall, shot in the face in a firefight with Nazi commandos, only for him to pop up unharmed seven pages later! Newt being a man of vision rather than detail.
* In his second alternate version of World War II, the scenario is simpler. Admiral Yamamoto, the principal Japanese commander and architect of the attack on Pearl Harbor, sails with the fleet to personally command the attack on Pearl. Instead of breaking off, as the more cautious Admiral Nagumo did, after the first two waves of attack, he presses home a third wave which wreaks much greater devastation on Hawaii.
* In his alternate version of the Civil War, the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg is reversed. Lee and the Confederates win this time. The war goes from there. But to a fairly familiar conclusion.
After all, it wouldn't do for a Georgian on the comeback trail, planning to run for president down the line, to have the South win the Civil War.
If Gingrich strikes many observers as someone who rather blithely countenances potentially horrific scenarios, it may be because he's done so in his alternate histories.
1945 is especially interesting because it was written at the height of Gingrich's power, published in 1995 following the Republican takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives which made him Speaker of the House.
Co-authored with science fiction writer William Forstchen, who had just finished a series of novels of about a unit of Civil War soldiers from Maine transported to a distant planet, 1945 was initially notorious for its lurid opening, a hint of a steamy sex scene between the White House chief of staff and a beautiful Nazi spy. But after that, it's Tom Clancy all the way, with Newtonian spin.
The Nazi airborne assault on the U.S. nuclear weapons development facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee is made easier by federal gun control. But a citizen militia led by World War I legend Alvin York turns up in the nick of time to save the day.
Thus proving, in this alternate universe, at least, it's best to be armed at all times. Because one never knows when Red Dawn might occur. At any moment!
There's the Gingrich penchant for colorful prima donnas. Gone are the Nimitz, Spruance, and Eisenhower who loomed so large in winning the war in our world. In their place are MacArthur, Halsey (the principal American figure in his alternate Pearl Harbor tale), and Patton, all major figures in the real war, but not its premiere leaders.
On the other side the principal figure is Teutonic superman Otto Skorzeny, Hitler's favorite commando leader. He plays more like the nemesis of Captain America in the recent hit movie than a real life figure, which he was in our world.
With puckish humor, Gingrich has the Nazi Skorzeny utter the famous Reagan line: "Peace through strength."
There's a certain mannered Victorianism, from calling the UK England to a de rigeur lionization of Churchill, even to the president's talisman, an ornate Victorian era clock from his late mother on the mantel in the Oval Office.
There's the foolhardiness of not being perpetually prepared for war, with U.S. forces having been drawn down drastically following the victory over Japan, thus scarcely able to blunt the impending Nazi assault.
Unless there is a techno-surge, that is.
Gingrich's penchant for techno-fix is on screaming display, both in his awed description of Nazi super-weapons throughout the book, and in his solutions to America's crisis.
Unfortunately, what had been an entertaining tale most of the way turns into a Gingrich think tank seminar.
And Gingrich's sloppiness -- "Marshall popped up and fired a burst -- then dropped like a sack, his face a bloody mask" (then takes charge of much of the rest of the action a few pages later!) -- is compounded by oh-by-the-way plotting in which a massive simultaneous attack we've never heard of before against the Los Alamos nuclear facility takes place off-stage, briefly referred to in passing.
Roughly the last fifth of the novel consists of several hurried meetings for purposes of exposition, set-up for the rest of the never completed series, and explication of Gingrich's approach to national security decision-making.
We get the Newtonian solution for America's quandary: A skunk works for a techno-surge in which innovative mavericks follow their own direction to produce rapid-fire solutions.
It's part of his vision of adhocracy instead of bureaucracy, complete with a war cabinet consisting of the president, his intelligence chief, two generals and an admiral, an aircraft designer, and two spies.
Still, it's something of a classic, which actually ends with the phone line to Winston Churchill going dead, followed by "TO BE CONTINUED ..."
Which it never was. Instead of following through as promised into a super-charged global war between America and Nazi Germany, Gingrich dropped the overtly sci-fi for the rather more pastoral pleasures of an alternate Civil War.
But he returned to World War II with two novels on its Pacific War aspect, including an intense set of aircraft carrier engagements between Halsey and Yamamoto in the immediate aftermath of December 7th. Only to again leave readers hanging as to the outcome, embarking on uplifting novels about George Washington and the American Revolution in 2009, in retrospect an obvious tell of his own presidential intentions.
Gingrich, rogue though he is, is not to be underestimated. At the turn of the millennium, he was a useful member of the Clinton-created U.S. Commission on National Security for the 21st Century, a comprehensive review of geostrategy and national security (which warned of major terrorist attacks inside the U.S.), co-chaired by my old friend and boss former Senator Gary Hart, with whom Gingrich co-founded the Congressional Military Reform Caucus.
He's a much more interesting character for our emerging political melodrama than Mitt Romney. And with his gift for melodrama, more suited for the story.
You can check things during the day on my site, New West Notes ... www.newwestnotes.com.