Years ago, I remember an interview in which former Speaker Newt Gingrich said he read at least one book a week. The trick to doing so for such a busy man?
Always carry what you're reading, he recommended, even when you're not traveling; read in doctors' waiting rooms, in checkout lines—any place where you'd otherwise just be wasting time.
Some time after that—he was out of office by this point—I saw Gingrich in the Tysons Corner (Virginia) mall. He was in the corridor, slowly pacing in a circle ... his nose buried in a book.
Impressive, I thought; he reads even while (presumably) his wife shops.
The downside to this kind of bibliophilia, for certain personalities, is that it can lead to faddishness. I'm sure you have a friend who fits the bill: Whatever he's reading at a given moment is all he can talk about. And then he moves on.
I've always had the impression that Newt is a lot like that—and this Washington Post report on Gingrich the "ideas factory" gives me no reason to doubt it.
Brimming with ideas is perhaps a superior condition when compared to, say, the calcified simplicity of George F. Will ("Romney's economic platform has 59 planks—56 more than necessary if you have low taxes, free trade and fewer regulatory burdens.") The latter is a time-honored trope for too many conservative pundits: Get government out of the way of the market, ponder no further, and then pat yourself on the back for appreciating "society's complexities."
But an overheated motor of idea generation in high office is a recipe for disaster, or at least folly. As Charles Krauthammer observes, Gingrich as president would be "in constant search of the out-of-box experience."
Then again, Gingrich seems to me to be full of lots of ideas that are not as imaginative as he thinks or, alternatively, just plain dumb. Gingrich wants to be able to fire federal judges, partially privatize Social Security and Medicare, and create a flat-tax alternative to the current code. This is comfortably in line with the positions of his GOP rivals.
Then there's Gingrich's now-infamous "child janitor" idea. Kids in the inner-city lack productive role-models, he says; they don't see what it's like for an adult to get up in the morning and go to work. This is itself a debatable proposition, but what bothers me most about it is that it's a solution in search of the wrong problem.
When I think of Gingrich's hypothetical poor inner-city kid, I see a bunch of problems, short- and long-term. He's going to a lousy school—and even if he does well there, he faces long odds of a) finishing college and b) doing better than nonpoor kids who didn't finish college. Set aside the schooling question, there's the fact of stratospherically high unemployment rates in the inner city, and the broader, abysmal lack of opportunity for low-skilled men.
All of this is to say that cleaning bathrooms as a teenager is probably not going to change outcomes for this kid.
"Paycheck President" Gingrich really has nothing interesting to say about declining social mobility in America, about how to mitigate the ways in which the global economy and low-skilled immigrants are squeezing working- and middle-class Americans from the top and bottom.
All that time reading in malls and doctors' offices, and he's still well inside-the-box on the most important questions.