All kings have their courts.
When Bill Clinton came to power, the capital glittered with the opinions of his Hollywood crowd. There was Barbra Streisand talking about Thomas Jefferson; there was Harry Thomason talking about the White House travel office; there was Cristophe talking about cutting and shaping.
But now Rep. Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., owns the fickle political spotlight, and his courtiers are quite different, with their own ideas about cutting and shaping. Washington rings with the opinions of futurists and spiritualists, self-improvement experts and cyberspace cartographers - all billing themselves as friends, advisers and even “gurus” to the new speaker of the House.
Here is Alvin Toffler talking about the “third wave,” Arianna Huffington talking about the “fourth instinct” and Gingrich offering his five “new’s,” his new proposals for change.
Here is Heidi Toffler, Toffler’s wife and co-author, sparring with Huffington about second- and third-wave diversity values. Here is a new conservative-futurist vocabulary about “byte cities,” “brain lords” and “cyberpolitics.”
At a conference Tuesday, his friends spoke about virtual economy, virtual government and virtual America. These allies serve as a window into the culture of the new congressional leadership, reflecting Newtonian notions far more quirky than the tax- and budget-cutting talk that led to Gingrich’s election as speaker of the House.
Gingrich himself delivered a talk titled “From Virtuality to Reality.” His acolytes in the Mayflower Hotel ballroom listened raptly, unperturbed by a speech that roamed, in verbally complicated ways, from Pitt the Younger to downloading from cybernetic systems.
“In a sense, virtuality at the mental level is something I think you’d find in most leadership over historical periods,” the new speaker declared. “But in addition, the thing I want to talk about today, and that I find fascinating, is that we are not at a new place. It is just becoming harder and harder and harder to avoid the place we are.”
Streisand merely read books about Thomas Jefferson; Gingrich has put Jefferson on line - giving that president’s name to a new Library of Congress program that allows computer users instant access to congressional proceedings.
Conceding that his recent suggestion of a tax credit for laptop computers for poor children was perhaps “a dumb idea,” Gingrich said that he is trying to follow the advice of his wife, Marianne, to “go slow and be responsible.”
“I’m not quite there yet, I’m trying. But it’s hard,” he said. “I mean it’s, you know, I’ve been a backbencher. And I mean, shucks, people didn’t used to listen to even my good stuff.”
But even as he warned himself to go slow, Gingrich could not resist spinning more grandiose plans for remaking American civilization.
First he explained that “where we are right now is not 1933, it’s the 1770s to 1800, that just as the Englishspeaking world went through the transition from the end of the medieval agrarian society to the rise of the commercial and ultimately manufacturing society and out of that came waves of change that were very traumatic and very profound, that the transition from the industrial era into the information age is very similar in forcing us to ask the most profound questions about relationships.”
Later, he explained: “We are at 1760, not at 1789. We are beginning to invent the America of the information age. We’re not about to inaugurate George Washington. We don’t yet know what, in effect, our intellectual constitution for the future is.”
Gingrich described his “five news” as new hope, new dialogue, new access, new partnership and a new team.
The conference was run by Jeff Eisenach, the head of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, and a longtime political sidekick of Gingrich’s.
The speaker has been friends with Alvin and Heidi Toffler, who collaborated on books like “Future Shock” and “The Third Wave,” since the early 1970s, when he was an assistant professor at West Georgia State College. He has asked the Tofflers to advise him on how to recast the way Congress works so that Washington can move into a “third wave” society.
Although the Tofflers concede that some of Gingrich’s conservative positions - on abortion and school prayer, for instance - are far from their more liberal political taste, they hail their friend as “a third-wave leader.”
Toffler uses the wave metaphor to explain the progression of history from an agricultural society to an industrial society to what he says is the incipient third wave, an information society.
Toffler speaks in his own complex argot about “de-massification,” “civilizational upheaval” and societies that are “standardized, specialized, synchronized, concentrated, maximized and centralized into a classical vertical, hierarchical bureaucracy.”
Scarlett O’Hara, for instance, would have been a first-wave person, because Toffler sees the Civil War as “in large measure a conflict between the first- and second-wave elites” - the first wave being the agriculturalbased South and the second wave being the more industrialized North.
He also gave Gary Hart as an example of a politician who was trying to push into the third wave with his “new ideas,” but he was “pushed aside” in favor of “that quintessential second-wave American, Walter Mondale.”
The Tofflers have said that they are uncomfortable with some of the beliefs of Huffington, the author of “The Fourth Instinct,” a treatise on volunteerism and spirituality, and the wife of Michael Huffington, the defeated Senate candidate from California who spent millions of his fortune on his campaign.
That became clear Tuesday when Heidi Toffler - who has complained to the new reigning Republicans that they are too “lily white” - said on a panel about “Culture and Politics in Virtual America” that she hoped that more women and members of minority groups would be elected to Congress.
Huffington warned her that this might be second-wave thinking, since in the new wave, women would not have to be in Washington to contribute to society - an interpretation of waves that clearly irritated Toffler.
“The question is not are there enough women in Congress,” Huffington lectured the older woman. “The question is are there enough women around solving the country’s problems.”
Huffington also warned against bipartisan cooperation, saying it could dilute the revolution, and against media cooperation.
Speaking of network correspondents like Connie Chung, she advised the group dryly: “We should not leave our mothers alone with them for eight hours.”