Ben Franklin was 70 when the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, and 81 when the Constitution was signed in 1787. He signed both.
So, he was the original Ben Franklin in America’s first board room; the eldest, the wisest, the most experienced man in the building. And in both instances, he wrote almost nothing, spoke little and debated even more rarely. And probably snoozed more than the others. Yet everyone in the room deferred to him when he did speak for among all the people gathered, Ben Franklin knew more about America, as it was then, and as it had been half a century earlier, than anyone else…it’s history and it’s culture. And Ben could hold his own with the two group’s better known philosophers. There was no subject under the sun he was a stranger to.
Since I’m the same age as the 1776 Franklin, and have a good sense of how I and my forbears got here, I naturally believe such people are an asset to any large endeavor. A keeper of the legends. Once upon a time many publically-held corporations made it a practice to have at least one person meeting the general qualifications of a Benjamin Franklin sitting on its board who could speak of an earlier time in America’s economic history. In my own corporate life of the 1980s, the Ben Franklin in the boardroom of our Fortune 50 company was a Jew, a Dartmouth man, who had married the daughter of the founder, himself an Hungarian immigrant Jew. He’d been there almost from the beginning in the 40s. Never the CEO, still a senior officer, his knowledge carried great weight.
Joe would tell stories about how it had been in 1952, when they built their first big plant. In those days he knew almost every employee by name, and because he did, the next generation of plant managers would be expected to as well, even as the company grew tenfold in size. Today you would think that quaint, since rarely do employees in an office of only a few hundred know any ranking officer beyond immediate supervision.
I still think about this common touch among senior officers, mostly from the greatest generation, for it would be nice if America’s leaders could step outside their compartmentalized honeycomb and roam their hallways every once in awhile. Even Nixon went down to the WH kitchen and had coffee and leftovers with the help. Barbara Bush still sends birthday and Christmas cards to the people who tended to her family. Hillary threw food trays at them. And wants to be able to again.
This sense of history is especially important now, but not because of the great distance between top management and rank and file today, but because of the rise of the new millennial generation who is so in- love with itself that they think theirs is the normal state of nature. They don’t even know there is an “out there” there.
I can think of no one in government today who is a genuine historian of America that goes beyond their own limited history inside it. Larry Schweikart (Patriot’s History of the United States) and Herman Cain are but a few. I’ve never spoken with Newt Gingrich but I once asked Herman about how he would ensure his legacy of reform would survive him. There are several ingredients, and the force of personality isn’t one while a sense of history is.
Keeping the American flame alive is more complex. The Founders didn’t just create a new system of government here, they institutionalized an existing society built from the bottom up in which everyone shared a common tap root. And despite a concerted effort by elements inside government to change that founding blueprint from at least 1900, our original social arrangement was passed on spontaneously, from parent to child, generation-to-generation up until only recent memory, when government seems to have finally gotten ahead of that original social contract, and now stands on the cusp of finally being able to snap it.
Now, more than at any other time, America needs a Ben Franklin sitting in its inner councils who has that cultural memory and insight to relate what America once was, and that is still important.
Newt Gingrich is clearly that guy.
Every issue a new Trump government will face will carry a historical and cultural component, whether the Middle East, Russia, China, Healthcare, race relations, immigration that extends back over two generations. No policy formulation should go forward without those considerations…only not found in a two-paragraph executive summary from a career bureaucrat buried in some agency.
These matters need to be discussed in face-to-face counsel, for when Ben Franklin spoke, he also taught. When Newt speaks he can be relatively certain he is adding to the room’s collective knowledge of things they need to know.
And it’s that special ability to teach in small groups that could secure Mr Gingrich’s place in history, for our generation is about to be succeeded by that aforementioned generation of #OnlyIMtatter me-me-meists, whose understanding of the very shoulders they stand on, much less the cultural history of the peoples that set this wonderful table for them, (in the words of Texas Jack Garner, the man FDR nudged out in the ’32 Convention) is “as shallow as a pool of warm spit.”
But many are very good, albeit shallow, conservatives who dangerously believe they are as deep as Aristotle. I’ve followed Milo Yiannopoulus, Ben Shapiro, and Mike Cernovich and note these qualities in each, all popular, all doing quite well in the celebrity department, but alas, thinking they have reached the apex of conservative knowledge, while still swimming around in that shallow pool of spit. Their generation thinks of Monica Lewinsky as ancient history and don’t seem to be terribly bothered by those events 18 years ago anyway, culturally or morally, having never diagrammed in their minds the relationship between a moral culture and the American success largely built by armies of C-students, many of whose children became A-students….like Milo.
They have no idea about the essential American social contract based on reciprocity (“Reciprocate with thy neighbor as you would have your neighbor reciprocate with you”) and have a disdain for the common man, who they think of as “uneducated C-students”, never knowing that the Constitution was written specifically for the common man, or understanding why.
They will never learn these things from a book, but must be taught as CS Lewis taught his students, and how Jesus inspired his 12, 70, and then 120 to go out and teach the good news of America. Newt can inspire a generation of disciples because he can, and he knows America sits on the a cultural cusp if it is not attended before our generation passes away.
Newt Gingrich is an idea guy, with insights no one else in government has had, and as Vice President can cast his seeds in a more fruitful way than the administrative constraints he found as Speaker. Trump would do very well to select him.