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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : One Politician Who’s a Salesman at Heart : TO RENEW AMERICA <i> by Newt Gingrich</i> , HarperCollins, $24, 260 pages

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Campaign books--and make no mistake, “To Renew America” is such a book, whether promoting a platform or a presidential candidacy--aren’t written for the ages. They are disposable, multiple-warhead weapons with two purposes: to solidify support among the already converted and to convince fence-sitters that resistance is vain. You don’t expect to find good history in a campaign book, or even particularly good reasoning, and by the same token you’d be shocked not to encounter numerous references to the Founding Fathers, the flag and the American family.

Seen in these terms, Newt Gingrich’s not-quite-newest book (his novel “1945” has just been published) is both a revelation and a disappointment. There’s little new here in terms of substance: Gingrich continues to crusade, often productively, on behalf of the “contract with America” that made him Speaker of the House in November, arguing that the welfare system is a failure, that government is the problem rather than the solution, that Americans needn’t be pessimistic about the future.

What proves most interesting about “To Renew America” is its cumulative effect, for gradually you begin to see beneath Gingrich’s virtuoso surface, to understand why he provokes such strong reactions. His energy, dedication, confidence, idealism and mental agility come through loud and clear . . . but so do his romanticism and sentimentalism and self-centeredness, his selective memory and penchant for gamesmanship, which together produce an unease-producing sense that, yeah, he’s just another politician seeking votes.

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Gingrich may portray himself as a revolutionary, but he seems to share with non-revolutionary politicians a willingness to pander to selfishness and routine prejudice, to promote ideas less because they are good than because they are widely held.

Gingrich answers that criticism within this book, of course: What he calls the “media elite” don’t like him because they’re cynical, liberal, out of touch. And it’s true Gingrich doesn’t limit himself to saying what the average person wants to hear, for “To Renew America” is full of ideas too idiosyncratic to have been championed by in-house pollsters.

Who would have guessed, a few years back, that one of the most powerful politicians in the United States would admit that his philosophy of life was shaped less by James Madison, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln than by futurist Alvin Toffler, science fiction writer Arthur Clarke and quality guru Edwards Deming? Or that he would ask, “Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park?” and describe the United States as “a romance in which we all partake”? It’s refreshing to see such risk-taking in a politician--and a little scary, too.

Scary? Yes, because Gingrich’s views, when they aren’t some combination of broad-minded, quixotic and visionary, are remarkably blinkered. In the book’s first few pages, for example, he writes that “From the arrival of English-speaking colonists in 1607 until 1965, there was one continuous civilization [in America] built around a set of commonly accepted legal and cultural principles.” If you stress the word principles , this children’s-textbook interpretation of history holds some weight--but how many Native or African Americans could read that sentence without harsh laughter?

Gingrich may be a Ph.D.-holding historian but “To Renew America” shows him to be a salesman at heart, less interested in the product he’s hawking, or the accuracy of his underlying facts, than in making a sale. He quotes without blushing a claim that productivity in the United States will have increased one-trillion-fold between 1950 and 2000; he praises the entrepreneurial vision of Henry Ford and Ray Kroc, only to condemn a few pages later Ford’s soul-killing assembly-line management, and forgetting altogether that Kroc mastered the creation of unskilled, minimum-wage, dead-end jobs.

It’s too early to say whether Gingrich and his allies are any more in touch with the American people than the legislators they replaced. They claim to be, but judging from this book Gingrich is simply out of touch in a different way, believing it’s possible to turn back the clock to the 1950s lifestyle portrayed by Norman Rockwell and Reader’s Digest--two of Gingrich’s cultural touchstones--and update it with modern technology.

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Gingrich would like to think that the 1960s and ‘70s were an aberration, but they weren’t, for in those years American minorities--whether defined in racial, social, sexual or political terms--decided that they, too, were part of America.

The United States has been a disorderly place ever since--and is the stronger for it because lasting ideas are built not on ignoring or ridiculing different perspectives but on engaging with them. Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. put it this way in 1919:

“The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Gingrich’s “contract with America,” as elucidated here, has a surface marketability, but only the coming years will tell whether it is more nearly akin to a new bill of rights or an opportunistic bill of goods.

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