In the Arena

Newt’s Trumpet: Ducking Donald and Talking Work Ethic With Gingrich

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Seth Wenig / AP

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at The Union League Club in New York, Dec. 5, 2011.

As part of my yearlong crusade to purge this space of any mention of a certain sleazeball, self-promoting real estate developer who doesn’t really develop any real estate but mostly makes money by selling his name to actual, if prohibitively foolish, developers who mistakenly think of that name, which rhymes with dump, as something that might raise their property value, I did not attend the scrum accompanying Newt Gingrich’s embarrassing visit with said mogul this morning. Life is too short.

In the great calculus of politics, Gingrich’s pilgrimage  means that he believes that more votes can be gained if he “trumpets” than if he doesn’t. There is, after all, a residual lunatic tinge of birtherism in some GOP  precincts. And while Gingrich’s paean to this monumental phony was relatively restrained, the visit did provide several of his Republican opponents an opportunity to make hay.

Jon Huntsman reasserted his sanity and propriety by refusing the join the parade of Republican candidates to “kiss the ring or any other body part” of this disgraceful showboat.

Far more creative, however, was Ron Paul’s response, which I reproduce below in full:

“We agree, of course, with former Speaker Gingrich — this is a country of people of enormous talent. Those who deliver thousands of babies like Dr. Paul and those who spend their time focusing on promoting themselves for profit. We even have those who lobby, but don’t call it such because, as they say, they can make $60,000 per speech. While those of us in the Paul camp might disagree with Newt Gingrich about whether Donald Trump is the right man to host a serious political debate, we do agree New York is a wonderful place to go at Christmas. We are sure two average Americans like Speaker Gingrich and Donald Trump will have a wonderful time picking out gifts for their wives. We suggest a place called Tiffany’s, we her it is quite nice this time of year and given their celebrity status they can probably get special deals and $500,000 lines of credit.”

I did attend a press conference that Gingrich held later at the Union League Club in New York, a very much refined and now-proper remnant of the furious anti-slavery sentiments that attended the birth of the Republican Party. Indeed, I was sitting beneath one of the club’s treasures: a framed lock of John Brown’s hair–a reminder that Gingrich’s perfervid temperament has roots that go back to the founding of the GOP.

Ironically, the press conference mostly had to do with a subject that might interest John Brown–the souls of poor folk, with Gingrich elaborating and doubling-down on his proposal that poor kids be taught a work ethic, and make a few bucks, by helping to clean their schools.

This issue is very personal to me–as Gingrich pointed out when we chatted afterward–because I gave him the idea in the first place, twenty years ago. He read a column I wrote about New York City’s fiscal cataclysm, in which I mentioned that the school janitors had a contract that paid them more than teachers received (nearly $60,000–and now nearly double that) but, according to said contract, they only were required to mop the cafeteria floor once a week. I suggested at the time that maybe the city could save some money by contracting out the heavy-duty janitorial work, but also build some character and community spirit by having the kids and their parents help keep the schools clean. (Unlike Newt, I didn’t limit this to the poor–I thought it would be a good idea for the upper middle class kids going to the city’s elite exam high schools and for all those in the middle as well.)

There has been a reflexive and rather silly blast from the left against this idea–claims that Gingrich wanted to bring back child labor (and, yes, he did foolishly mention that child labor laws might have to be modified). But that’s not what this is about. Another term is more appropriate: doing chores. And it does seem to me odd that while many high schools now require some form of public service–often community cleanup programs–said service can’t take place within the school itself.

Gingrich is right that the desperately poor need to learn the habits of work in order to break out of the cycle of poverty. This is a cause he has championed throughout his career, dating back to the 1980s, when he launched a program in Georgia called “Earning By Learning,” in which poor kids were paid $2 for each book they read. Newt had other such ideas–like paying foreign language-speaking students to teach Chinese, Spanish or whatever to their English-speaking classmates. In my experience, he has been one of the very few Republicans who has thought extensively about making education more attractive and compelling for poor kids.

I believe that the rest of our kids could use some community-based chores to make them more appreciative, and protective, of the facilities used for their education, too. I was reminded of the power of this idea on my recent road trip when Turk Pipkin showed his documentary, “Building Hope,” to a group of Latino leaders in Laredo. Pipkin’s documentary is about the building of a school in rural Kenya–and the Latino leaders were blown away by the enthusiasm of the Kenyan children when it came maintaining the school that had been built for them. “I wish our kids could be as appreciative about the education we give them,” one of them said.

I have lots of policy differences with Gingrich, and his mean-spirited political vehemence has been a plague on our society for 30 years, but this is one area where he is absolutely correct. I’ll have more on this topic in my print column this week.