Way back when — specifically in 1996 — the world was different in several ways. I was writing a regular column for Andy Porter’s great old newsmagazine SF Chronicle and my great but definitely never old wife, Betty Anne Hull , had allowed herself to be nominated to represent our 8th Illinois district of Congress by the Democratic Party. Unfortunately both enterprises came to naught. When the votes were in, Betty Anne had lost the election to the long-entrenched Republican incumbent, and the person who legally owned Andy’s magazine (never mind how that happened. Long story) had pulled the plug. An article I had written for its next issue on Newt Gingrich thus never appeared.
In more recent times, it occurred once more to me (having forgotten all about that earlier piece) to write about Newt, so I did. But then Andy, somewhat sharply, asked if I had forgotten about the first piece. Which, of course, I had, my memory having once been described as the envy of all the other sieves. So he sent me a copy of the piece and when I read it ,it seemed interesting enough to share with you. But do, please, remember that it is a 1996 piece and all the things that I speak of in it as current matters are very much not any more.
(Incidentally. Andy has retained copies of all my SF Chronicle pieces and thinks it would be a good idea for one of you editor guys to bring them out as a book, maybe an ebook. I agree with him.)
For SF Chronicle, 1996.
I hope Karel Capek wouldn’t mind my borrowing the title of his old SF novel, although since he’s no longer around we’ll never know. Capek’s book was actually a pretty good read, being about these evil, slimy creatures that did their best to ruin the human race.
And for some reason it keeps coming up in my mind these days.
Well, that’s disingenuous of me. I know the reason perfectly well. Perhaps you do, too: it’s because my wife, Betty Hull, is running for Congress here in Illinois. If she happens to beat the odds and get elected she will spend her term in the House doing her very best to thwart the designs of our current Head Newt, a.k.a. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich.
Of course, since their districts are about a thousand miles apart, her technical opponent won’t be Newt Gingrich. The adversary on the scene is a massively funded and well entrenched incumbent named Phil Crane — best known in some circles for the hissy fit he threw when some reporter said he had favored the use of nuclear weapons in the Gulf. Crane wasn’t going to sit still for a libel like that. With great indignation he protested that he hadn’t said a word about nuclear weapons, all he had suggested was the use of neutron bombs.
Isn’t it a pity that so many Congressmen know so little of what they’re talking about? They used to have an institution called the Office of Technology Assessment available to help them keep from looking stupid. Happens I know a little bit about the OTA because once or twice they invited me down to Washington to help figure out what to do about things like electronic copyright. The OTA worked hard to try to distinguish facts from airy hopes and delusions. They were pretty good at it, too, but they don’t do it any more. Apparently Congress didn’t want to hear anything that conflicted with what they wanted to believe, so — as an “economy” measure — they shut the OTA down.
Anyway, it isn’t really Phil Crane that Betty’s running against. It’s Newt and all his ilk, and, like the fellow says, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that we set forth the reasons which impell us to this.
A lot of people like Newt Gingrich. Actually, in my one personal encounter with him, a couple of hours, five or six years ago, I found him to be an affable guy who — a big plus for us SF fan — actually has read a lot of science fiction, even attends a con now and then (that’s where I met him, in fact) and doesn’t mind admitting his SF interest in public. (He even says that Asimov’s Foundation books were one of the most seminal influences on his life. God knows what Isaac would have thought of that.) He even went so far as to write, or at least to collaborate on, an SF novel, 1945, an alternate-history job that I’m told isn’t bad at all. (I haven’t got around to reading my copy yet.) Gingrich is a buddy of people like our own homies, Jerry Pournelle and Jim Baen, some of whom arranged for him to give the keynote speech at the Nebula awards banquet a while ago. He writes for the World Future Society‘s magazine, The Futurist; he goes to futurists like Alvin and Heidi Toffler (you know, the Future Shock guys) for advice and suggestions, and he is a perfect marvel at generating one-liners for the TV news sound bites. What’s more he has declared himself in favor of science in general and the space program in particular; as a Congressional freshman the first legislation he introduced (unfortunately never passed) was a bill to set up procedures for governing colonies on the Moon. He has gone on record as predicting that by 2020 newlyweds will honeymoon in space; that, too, may be a little premature, but, hey, it’s a nice idea.
All that sounds really nice, this year. But you have to wonder where he’s going to be next year, because the man does switch sides so.
Consider, for instance, Newt on the environment. From 1984 to 1990 Newt was a member of the Sierra Club. In its March–April issue this year the club’s magazine, Sierra, took a look at Newt’s record with the organization. On paper at least, he was a dedicated conservationist if ever there was one. He took all the right positions. Drilling for oil in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge? Certainly not, Newt said; that would be only a “188-day quick fix” for America’s energy needs, which would be better served by “fuel efficiency and conservation measures.” Giving away the national forests? “Subsidized logging operations, as well as subsidized forest roadbuilding, should cease.” Protecting the wetlands? “The ecological significance of fresh- water wetlands … cannot be overemphasized. It is vital that our wetlands be protected.” He also favored strong controls on toxic emissions and just about everything else the Sierra Club stood for, and he said it all so convincingly that the club endorsed him in several elections.
That was the Newt that was. The Newt that is is a quite different person. As Speaker, he picks the chairs of, among others, committees dealing with the environment; the people he picked were Don Young (R, AK) and Thomas Bliley (R, VA). These gentlemen are not conservationists; in fact, they were so stalwart against every conservationist measure that in 1994 the League of Conservation Voters rated them both, on a scale of 0 to 100, a flat zero. Newt’s “Contract with America” promises radical revision of Clean Air Act standards for measuring toxic emissions. (Which is politician-speak for cutting the heart out of anti-pollution measures.) And, insiders say, under this former Sierra Club crusader applicants for House staff positions are now asked if they are members of the Club, and it is marked against them if they are.
Well, if you’ve happened to come across the book I wrote with Isaac Asimov, Our Angry Earth, you know I don’t have much time for “futurists” who kiss off the future environment for the sake of somebody making a few extra bucks today. There are other reasons why I don’t like what Newt and his stalwarts are doing, but let’s just let it stand with that one big one.
Is that what we all really want?
Newt claims it is, claims a “mandate” from the people. When you look a little more closely at that mandate it turns out not to be really overwhelming; by and large, just about 22 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots for Newt’s Republicans in 1984. Even fewer of the votes — only about 18 percen t — went to Democrats, so they got their “landslide.”
But the arithmetic shows that 60 percent of the eligibles, an overwhelming majority, cast a Kafka ballot — “none of the above” — by not voting in that Congressional election at all.
Considering what Congress is like it’s easy to understand the voters’ distaste for the whole ugly mess. But the effect of voting with the feet is that the doctrinaires and the obsessed are the ones who are going to come out and vote anyway, no matter what. So they are the ones who elect the people who govern us; and so we get the government we deserve.
What can we do about it?
Well, what I would really like you to do is to move to the 8th Congressional District of Illinois and vote for my wife. If that’s too much trouble, I’d appreciate it if you’d vote for a Democrat, any Democrat, to make Newt and his loopy band of brothers history. But no matter what, for God’s sake, vote.