Former speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich visited the LBJ Presidential Library at UT last Thursday for a talk titled “Leadership Challenges Beyond the Election.” The lecture and Q&A included far-reaching discussion of the policy issues Gingrich believes will most deeply affect the United States in both the immediate and distant future.
The theme of the evening was ideas—discussing, dissecting, and debating them. It was a narrative thread picked up by not only Gingrich, but also by the officials who introduced him.
“Come now, let us reason together,” said Library director Mark Updegrove, quoting the Book of Isaiah in his remarks. The idea that careful analysis, research, and thorough examination are vital to public affairs defined the evening. LBJ School of Public Affairs Dean Robert Hutchings praised Gingrich for his intellectual curiosity and respect for academic research, saying that Gingrich has “brought ideas into the public discourse.” Both Hutchings and Updegrove emphasized the value of research and academic discourse.
Research quality should be “tighter and mentally tougher,” he told the crowd. “We don’t write enough. We don’t criticize our writing enough.”
Gingrich didn’t hesitate to paint a complicated picture of the nation. The former university professor exhibited his characteristic grasp of details, launching into a complex discussion of the challenges he believes will define the U.S. in coming decades, a trajectory that started at the nation’s birth.
“How did we become this thing called American?” Gingrich asked. He cited American exceptionalism, and referenced what he called “America’s capacity for research,” including in the social sciences, as reasons for American greatness. Research quality should be “tighter and mentally tougher,” he told the crowd. “We don’t write enough. We don’t criticize our writing enough.”
Gingrich’s praise for intellectual rigor led into his outline of three major areas of national concern: international issues, including failed states and international crime; innovation and technology, including a “revolution” in biotechnology and innovative online teaching; and governance issues. Gingrich said it was embarrassing how unwilling Congress is to reflect on its own work, particularly at a time when Congressional approval is at an all-time low. He spent time both in his prepared remarks and in response to questions praising civil society as a driver of public works.
In the Q&A, moderated by LBJ School professor Jeremi Suri, Gingrich outlined an expansive vision of the country’s possible future. He traced three courses, from the decline of Western civilization, to a “muddling along,” to what he described as a rebirth of freedom. The discussion incorporated Gingrich’s deep grasp of history, at one point tying his childhood experiences in Europe to the future of Syria in one sentence. He appreciated a large and attentive audience, often times referencing Admiral Bobby R. Inman, former Dean of the LBJ School and Distinguished Alumnus. He occasionally joked with the audience, and was several times interrupted by applause.
“For those of you who listened carefully enough to be confused,” he closed, “I thank you.”
Photo courtesy LBJ School of Public Affairs