Which Newt Gingrich Will Emerge?
It's an old story in politics. While in office, awaiting the next election, a politician attacks youth, the currently fashionable whipping boy. Then, when that politician retires from electoral politics, he comes clean and admits youth do not really deserve such attack after all. We saw this with Al Gore. To a lesser extent, we saw this with Bob Dole.
But no Jekyll-and-Hyde politician since George Wallace has been more dramatic in turning over a new leaf than Newt Gingrich has on the issue of youth rights.
Gingrich's Mr. Hyde
During the 1990s, Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich led Republicans in attacking President Bill Clinton through every partisan battle. But Gingrich joined Clinton in attacking teenagers.
Like Clinton, Gingrich was caught cheating on his wife. Like Clinton, Gingrich decided the best way to change the subject and win back the puritan vote was to publicly impugn the sexual ethics of America's teenagers. He joined Bill Clinton in pushing for abstinence education, paying teachers to lecture captive teenagers about the naughtiness of pre-marital sex, and impressing on the public that single teenagers are the people whose sex-lives should be judged, not adulterous politicians.
Like Clinton, Gingrich also drew criticism for trying illegal drugs. And like Clinton, Gingrich decided the best way to win back the anti-drug crowd was too denounce teenagers for their drug-use. He joined Clinton in spending $929 million in tax-payer money on TV ads lecturing teenagers to stop using drugs. The ads were so out of touch with reality, they actually caused an increase in drug-use.
Gingrich's Dr. Jekyll
After retiring from electoral politics, however, Newt Gingrich felt free to stop pandering to those allowed to vote and instead share his honest views of how to improve our nation. At this point, Gingrich switched from attacking adolescents to attacking adolescence.
In an essay Gingrich wrote for Business Week, he joins Dr. Robert Epstein's call to end adolescence, the modern invention segregating young adults from adult society and subjecting them to second-class treatment. As Gingrich himself describes the situation, drawing on his Ph.D. in history:
[E]arly adulthood, early responsibility, and early achievement were the norm before the institution of adolescence emerged as a system for delaying adulthood and trapping young people into wasting years of their lives...
Adolescence ... has degenerated into a process of enforced boredom and age segregation that has produced one of the most destructive social arrangements in human history...
Gingrich recognizes the problem, and Gingrich calls for appropriate solutions. He acknowledges that teenagers should be given the same rights and freedoms given to adults.
He offers other youth-friendly ideas as well. He calls for school-reform that includes paying students for their time and effort, just as we pay teachers and administrators for theirs. Hear, hear!
If only Gingrich had had the courage to embrace such great ideas when he was the second most powerful man in Washington, D.C., the 90s in America might have been much better. Gingrich, however, may well get a second chance.
Which Newt Gingrich Will Run?
Gingrich is now preparing a run for the presidency. Republicans rightly recognize Gingrich as one of their party's sharpest thinkers, a man with many bold ideas that could transform our country. The question is, Which Newt Gingrich will run?
As Gingrich faces voters again, will he run as the bold intellectual, fighting for honest reforms? Or will he revert to the pandering politician he was when he last faced voters? Will he fight to end age-segregation and double-standards, or will he resume pushing the idea that the morals of teenagers are to be judged while the morals of adults such as himself and his voters are off-limits?
It would be nice to think Gingrich will stand strong for the truths he has now recognized and the ideas he has now put forward. It could also be a smart move for him politically. Fresh ideas, after all, are Gingrich's strongest quality as a candidate, given how long he has been out of office. And voters are more likely to support a leader who evolves as he discovers new solutions than to support a politician who simply flip-flops, cynically taking whichever position helps him at the moment.
If Gingrich shows this strength and this honesty, however, it will defy political norms. If Gingrich acts like most politicians making a serious run for office, he will downplay his support for youth rights or even compensate by attacking youth more vigorously than before.
For youth rights advocates, the best strategy is to stay quiet if Gingrich merely downplays, but to get vocal if he attacks. If he downplays, that keeps alive a hope that, when he's in office, he will quietly follow his conscience. If he attacks, however, youth advocates will need to keep him out of office to minimize the harm he does, and calling out his hypocrisy will be useful.
Of course, it's always possible Gingrich will be confident enough to go with option "C."
Here's hoping Newt Gingrich will defy political norms, break from the pack, and stand up for what he knows is right. Instead of following uninformed voters, here's hoping Gingrich will lead them (and us) to a better world.