Pedestrians in Washington have to be a patient lot. The Nuclear Security Summit was a big deal for Barack Obama and the visiting heads of state, but for everyone else it was only an opportunity to watch diplomats speeding down the avenues in big black rented limousines, trying to look important. They were in Washington to talk about ways to put nuclear weapons under lock and key, but it's hard to find anyone who thinks it was anything more than big talk.
Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House and Republican gadfly-in-chief, is one of the harshest skeptics of Obama's show-and-tell. A small group of journalists and economic and foreign policy conservatives braved the traffic gridlock to take breakfast with him in the midst of summit week and listen to his reasons why it was not the good day that the patient and polite traffic cops were going out of their way to wish the impatient pedestrians.
Newt provided his usual whirlwind of words, food for thought and for more than a little indigestion. Obama's summit, he said, was a "charade." He saw it as a craftily staged play in the Theatre of the Absurd, a fantasy of foreign policy in a time and place that demands reality.
Always the well-prepared college professor (which indeed he once was), Newt compared the two-day summit to the endless disarmament talks in Geneva in the 1920s. He recalled the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which sounds like a box of breakfast cereal but was actually a worthless piece of paper that was supposed to end war. Fifteen nations signed it initially, and the number grew to 50, including Germany.
We know how that turned out. The U.S. Senate confirmed it with only one dissenting vote, and the men who put the pact together each won the Nobel Peace Prize. Kellogg-Briand was meaningless as a defense against aggression, but it made a lot of people feel good about the prospects for "peace." Events would soon demonstrate the difference between "peace" and peace. Newt thinks there's a lesson here for today.
But if Obama's foreign policy is the absurd theater Newt says it is, the president's domestic agenda is a contraption that could have been created by Hollywood director James Cameron, the master of the images of the man-machine hybrid. You could call the movie "The Determinator."
The title of Newt's latest book, due next month, is "To Save America: Stopping Obama's Secular Socialist Machine." The $787 billion stimulus is Exhibit No. 1 in what Newt calls the Obama "secular socialist machine." The stimulus was enacted by Congress without anyone much having read it, and without anyone knowing how the money would be put to work: "So if you have spending with no representative knowing what it is, you don't have representative self-government," Newt says. "You have a machine."
Professor Gingrich likes to play academic games and so extends his metaphor. Taxation without representation triggered the young republic's revolt against the British king, and the Tea Party movement is the revolt against the democratic secular socialist machine: "This is the most radical administration in American history."
Americans once worked to pay off the mortgage so their children would inherit the house free and clear, but now the mortgage is so big that the children and their children will be lucky if they can keep up with the interest.
Newt talks so fast that his thoughts have to work hard to catch up with his words. The Great Mentioner (with a little prompting) occasionally mentions him as a prospect for president in 2012, but he's more likely to remain an idea man behind a conservative campaign. He peppers his speeches and interviews with quotes from George Orwell, reminding audiences that "1984" was written not as a satire of the old Soviet Union but about what Orwell feared Britain would become if it continued to put more and more power in the hands of the government bureaucrats.
If Obama is Polyanna, waxing rhapsodic over his health "reform" and prospects for his nuclear disarmament nostrums, Gingrich is Jeremiah -- with a catalogue of criticisms and warnings. "This is going to be, in economic terms, the worst administration since Herbert Hoover," he had told the Southern Republican Leadership Conference a few days earlier in New Orleans. "I'm tired of figuring out new ways to help people who aren't working. I want to find new ways to help people who are working."
This sounds like more of the brash creativity that produced the "Contract With America," which led to the big blowout in the midterm congressional elections of 1994. He sees similar opportunity, similar energy, out there today. Galvanizing that energy is the key to a similar big blowout.