Gingrich Discusses Challenges

Matthew R. Schrimpf

Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, speaks at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum yesterday.

Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Newt Gingrich displayed a mellow and statesmanlike disposition during a speech last night for a packed crowd at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

The possible contender for the 2008 Republican nomination for president presented his newest program for America—drawn largely from his book “Winning The Future: A 21st Century Contract with America”—but spent the large majority of his time fielding questions from an audience of both critics and supporters.

Gingrich, formerly known for being “Mad as Hell,” as a 1994 Time magazine cover put it, started his speech by outlining the five greatest challenges he sees on the horizon for the country: national security, the failure of math and science education, the impending growth of China and India, an aging population, and defining an American civic culture.

In his discussion of math and science education, Gingrich made a number of proposals. Among them, he said the government should pay seventh through twelfth graders to study math and science, which would motivate students to work in school instead of at McDonald’s.

“We believe that the failure of math and science education is a greater threat than any conceivable conventional war,” said Gingrich, quoting a report from a commission on which he sat that evaluated the greatest challenges for the country in the next 25 years. “If you want to be a part of the 21st century, if you want to compete against China and India, you have got to focus on doing better in math and science.”

Gingrich also proposed cutting as much as $10,000 of interest from loans of college students who pursue degrees in math and science—a bill currently under consideration in Congress.

“I think that within two to three years, we’ll pass it,” said Gingrich in an interview after the speech. “Everyone I’ve talked to seems to think it’s a good idea.”

Although his speech drew few strong reactions from the audience, some attendees said they were impressed at the smatterings of supportive applause from a what is generally considered a liberal student body.

Students overall had mixed reactions both to his definition of America’s greatest challenges and his analysis of them.

Audience members questioned Gingrich about his failure to include the environment, energy use, and social inequality on his list of national challenges.

“I think, as was pointed out by many of the question askers, that he ignored a lot of the significant issues facing America today,” said Sebastian T. Abbot, a first-year student at the Kennedy School of Government, after the speech.

When addressing national security, Gingrich made a reference to Abbot’s father—the sole Navy admiral appointed by Vice President Dick Cheney to evaluate the findings of a national security commission on which Gingrich also sat. Gingrich pointed to this appointment as a sign that the current administration, like past ones, has not appropriately addressed national security issues.

His comment prompted Abbot to question Gingrich on his logic, asking if America was any safer after pre-emptively attacking Iraq.

“Like all politicians, he didn’t answer the question,” Abbot said after the speech.

After serving as Speaker from 1995 to 1999, Gingrich resigned from the House entirely amid accusations of corruption and adultery. But many media outlets have speculated on a possible return to politics for Gingrich in the 2008 presidential election.

When asked if he plans to run for president, Gingrich only replied: “I’ll think about it in the summer of 2007.”

—Staff writer Eduardo E. Santacana can be reached at esantac@fas.harvard.edu.