Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg
Photographer: Rick Friedman/Bloomberg

I was driving when I heard the latest Republican front-runner intoning that “the centerpiece of this campaign, I believe, is American exceptionalism versus the radicalism of Saul Alinsky.” He went on from there, but I was already grinning from ear to ear. Newt Gingrich had me at Alinsky.

What excites me is not the preposterousness of the statement. No, there isn’t actually any conflict between the idea that America stands alone and the outlook of the proudly independent inventor of community organizing, who once said, “I’ve never joined any organization -- not even the ones I’ve organized myself.” And, yes, the Tea Party is a perfect example of anarchic Alinskian organization. But those are just silly facts, not reasons for pure joy in the driver’s seat.

What I love was the absurdity of Newt Gingrich apparently believing that the name Saul Alinsky would have any kind of meaning to the Americans listening to him. Alinsky died in 1972. His 1971 book, “Rules for Radicals,” is a classic -- but it is a cult classic, known largely to community organizers and the experts who study them. (Or it was: Thanks to Gingrich, the paperback became the No. 1 seller in Amazon.com’s “civics” category.)

Who believes it’s good campaign politics to attack a relatively unknown visionary who has been dead for 40 years? A historian, that’s who. Gingrich just can’t help himself. Sure, he wants to be president. But more than that, he wants to teach us some history.

A Critical Progressive

Gingrich would not be the first historian president. That distinction properly belongs to Theodore Roosevelt. While serving as governor of New York, Roosevelt wrote and published a full-dress biography of Oliver Cromwell, a book one reader called “a fine imaginative study of Cromwell’s qualifications for the governorship of New York.” Woodrow Wilson, so far the only president to hold a Ph.D., got his doctorate in political science and history. Gingrich, for his part, has the Ph.D. in history that Teddy lacked, not to mention more than two dozen published books. (Although his works of history, and several historical novels, have a co-author, William Forstchen.)

But the technicality of academic achievement is secondary to the question of Gingrich’s self-conception, which is as historical as it could be. Not only did he write his Tulane University dissertation on Belgian education policy in the colonial Congo, he also was hired as an assistant professor at West Georgia College to teach European history -- a job he held for several years.

Gingrich’s files from his time at West Georgia, posted online by the Wall Street Journal, are telling. They begin with the wonderful moment in an importuning letter of application where he explains that, “I am more a critical progressive seeking reform rather than a new leftist.”

It’s a relief, I guess, to discover that Gingrich wasn’t a member of Students for a Democratic Society. Yet, it would seem, as he entered academia Gingrich was prepared to embrace the prevailing liberal winds of the time -- or thought he should, if he wanted a job. Gingrich’s critical progressivism (if it ever really existed) was short-lived. By 1974, he was already taking a leave of absence to run for Congress as a Republican.

But his desire for “reform” was durable and serious. Indeed, so eager was he to make changes that Gingrich applied to be president of the college -- in his first year as a junior faculty member. This ill-fated application led him to produce a document aimed at charting the next 30 years in the history of the college -- which is to say, its future.

Bitten by the future bug, Gingrich went on to teach a speculative class on the year 2000. (One can almost hear the chanting of “In the year 2000 … in the year 2000” from the old Conan O’Brien skit.) A college press release (admittedly not a very precise primary document) described Gingrich as a specialist on futurism.

Drawn to Futurism

No doubt a press release touting Gingrich’s expertise in the future made it inevitable that the history department would ease him out of teaching about the past. Gingrich joined the geography department, described by the university’s administration in an official memo as more suited to his new future-oriented interests.

Here Gingrich foundered. An educational institute that he tried to start with a colleague went nowhere. When he very reasonably asked if he could earn outside consulting money to supplement his $9,700 salary, the president explained dryly that while Gingrich could consult privately as a state employee, he couldn’t double-dip and earn state consulting fees. Sadly for Gingrich, Freddie Mac’s $25,000-a-month appreciation of his historical talents lay a couple of decades ahead.

Gingrich’s further leave of absence to run for office a second time yielded no results. After his seventh year teaching in the university, with no real departmental home and no significant publications to his name, he went the way of so many talented junior faculty before and since: He left the university to start his real life.

The change did him good. In 1978, just a year after being denied tenure, he was elected to Congress. His files display the delicious juxtaposition of the college president’s polite letter of non-renewal and his equally polite (but only slightly more effusive) letter of congratulations now that his former junior colleague had become his congressman. A better fulfillment of the fantasy of the untenured could hardly be imagined.

Once he had transcended the academy and escaped the company of actual historians, Gingrich was free to become as historical as he wanted. His appealing combination of pedantry and righteous anger will make him a formidable opponent should he be lucky enough to face off against the professor-in-chief, who is more the cool, rational educator than the nutty professor riding his hobbyhorse.

To get to that point, however, Gingrich must get past his most serious problem as a candidate: his history as a speaker forced to step down from the job and leave the House in 1999 after the failure of his party and his program. Gingrich’s success in South Carolina was an indication that the American people don’t know much about history. Whether the same will be true in Florida will be seen on Tuesday. To many voters there, one suspects, the 1990s aren’t ancient history at all.

(Noah Feldman, a law professor at Harvard University and the author of “Scorpions: The Battles and Triumphs of FDR’s Great Supreme Court Justices,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

Read more online opinion from Bloomberg View.

To contact the writer of this article: Noah Feldman in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at noah_feldman@harvard.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net