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Freaks and Geeks

The rise and fall of Newt’s inner nerd.

The fans who descended upon Baltimore in September 1983 for the forty-first annual World Science Fiction Convention hadn’t come to meet Newt Gingrich. They were there to see Isaac Asimov and the test pilot Chuck Yeager, to listen to Jim Henson hold forth on The Dark Crystal, to hear panel discussions like “Is There Pornography in the Future?” In this milieu, the gentleman from Georgia’s sixth district stood out mostly because of his conservative attire. “He was a novelty,” recalls the author Virginia Postrel, who met Gingrich at the convention. “People were wearing blue jeans. There was a visible minority in costumes.”

Gingrich gave a speech on a favorite theme: the imperative of advancing America’s frontier heritage into space. Jim Baen, a 39-year-old science fiction editor and publisher, was transfixed. After the speech, Baen told the congressman he needed to write a book. When Gingrich agreed, Baen asked his friend David Drake, a prolific science fiction writer, to sign on as Gingrich’s co-author. “Maybe we’ll get rich from it,” Baen told him. “Or maybe we won’t.”

They didn’t. Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future sold just 12,000 copies in hardcover. Still, it is a remarkable document—the rare politician’s book that actually reads like the work of its titular author. “It’s not marketing speak,” Drake says. “This is really who he is.”

In its incongruous mix of wide-eyed futurism and partisan invective, Window captured the tension that has always made Gingrich an interesting politician: He is a man whose inner geek is perpetually at war with his inner hack. When Window was published, Gingrich the hack was just beginning to feel out his niche as the Republican Party’s preeminent human flamethrower. But it was in Gingrich the geek that Baen and the other science fiction buffs saw something special.

BY THE TIME he met Gingrich, Baen—an Army veteran who in the 1960s had managed a folkie coffeehouse in Greenwich Village—had become a central figure in the newish subgenre of military science fiction, whose exponents tended toward hawkishness.

To Baen and his coterie of writers, Gingrich represented something extraordinary: a conduit between their cohort of right-of-center future-dreamers and the corridors of actual power. “Those guys wanted to be involved in making their vision of the world a little more real,” says Janet Morris, a science fiction writer and defense policy analyst who was an uncredited co-author on Window of Opportunity.

In the early ’90s, Baen approached the congressman with another idea: What about writing a novel? The two men hashed out a plan for a military-technological thriller, set in an alternate-history version of World War II in which Hitler never declares war on the United States. The Nazis take over Western Europe undisturbed, and soon an epic transatlantic confrontation looms.

The book, titled 1945, contained a sort of apocalyptic political argument: that Gingrichian bellicosity—contrasted with the novel’s milquetoast Democratic president—was necessary to save a great nation from its enemies. “I think Newt saw the book as, ‘This is a fun idea to play with,’” Drake told me. Baen, however, had come to see it as a “crucial political tract,” Drake recalls. “It stopped being a business proposition and became a crusade.”

But Gingrich had his own crusade to attend to. As the Republican Revolution gathered steam, HarperCollins offered him a $4.5 million advance for two books based on his Contract with America. The first book, To Renew America, and the 1945 novel were scheduled to land in bookstores at roughly the same time.

Baen’s eagerness to secure a large audience for 1945, Drake believes, was to blame for the Nazi Sex Kitten Incident. Dissatisfied with the first draft that Gingrich’s new co-author, William Forstchen, turned in, Baen began rewriting much of the novel himself—including an opening scene in which a Nazi spy, posing as a Swedish journalist, seduces the American president’s chief of staff in an effort to pry loose nuclear secrets. “Suddenly, the pouting sex kitten gave way to Diana the Huntress,” he wrote. “She rolled onto him and somehow was sitting athwart his chest, her knees pinning his shoulders.‘Tell me, or I will make you do terrible things.’” Convinced the scene was the book’s strongest selling-point, Baen circulated an excerpt to political reporters and Hollywood producers.

The excerpt rolled off fax machines in the interregnum between the GOP’s sweep of the 1994 election and Gingrich’s debut as speaker. It was greeted in the press by a forest of newly sharpened knives. Baen quickly took the blame for the offending passages, which were toned down in the final text that went to the printer that spring. But, by then, Gingrich seemed less than enthusiastic about 1945. When the speaker appeared at the Chicago Book Fair to promote To Renew America, Baen was reduced to handing out free copies of the novel to anti-Gingrich protesters outside, who tore the books to pieces on television.

The protesters were kind compared with the critics. The New York Times called 1945 a “desert of grindingly awful male dialogue.” “A Roadrunner cartoon has more character development,” wrote a reviewer for The Dallas Morning News. The Orlando Sentinel found fault with “the pages of turgid prose that make the book tough to stomach.”

A year after its debut, the hardcover had sold barely one-tenth of its print run. Baen told a Washington Post reporter that the whole affair had been “basically the biggest disappointment of my life.” He said he expected the 97,341 remaindered copies would be pulped for toilet paper. Baen “really wanted to do something good for the new George Washington,” Drake says. “He came close to destroying his company. His health went to hell. He put everything into it, and I don’t think he was treated very well for it.”

GINGRICH'S ASSOCIATION with Baen, who died of a stroke in 2006, may not be much more than a footnote in the former’s career. But it is a telling footnote: The end of their relationship was the moment when a politician who had always been torn between the geeks and the hacks sided, once and for all, with the hacks. To see Gingrich on the campaign trail this year is to be reminded of how totally the former speaker’s creative energies have been plowed into the caustic brand of politics he pioneered.

I tracked down a copy of Window of Opportunity in January. Thumbing through it, I found Gingrich to be unexpectedly pleasant company; there is an infectious exuberance in the way he flits between French information technology systems, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and high-tech home furnishing design in the space of a few pages. The twilight of his presidential campaign may very well augur the end of Gingrich the hack. If it does, there could be worse outcomes than a return of Gingrich the geek.

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 1, 2012 issue of the magazine.