I am writing a little book intended to explain Minnesota's colorful, quirky and frequently upsetting politics and politicians to those who are coming here to join us for the Republican national convention next year. Most politically aware Americans, of course, know who Hubert Humphrey was, what Walter Mondale did and who Jesse Ventura is. Some may even remember Minnesota's "boy governor" Harold Stassen, who later became a contender for the presidency and helped found the United Nations.
But in researching this book, and going back to when Minnesota first entered the Union in 1858, I found some other fascinating political figures, not the least of whom was a visionary character, Ignatius Donnelly, "the universal genius of the prairies." Donnelly was born in Pennsylvania and moved as a young man to Minnesota.
His first project was to establish a utopian new town called Nininger, south of St. Paul, soon after statehood was declared. Fluctuating real-estate values in the frontier economy soon doomed this enterprise, but Donnelly was off and running in Minnesota's young political culture. He was elected the state's second lieutenant governor in 1860, and in 1863 he became one of its first congressmen, serving until 1868. Donnelly held these offices as a Republican.
From 1874-1878 he served as a state senator, and in 1887 he was elected to one term as a state representative He served these offices in the state legislature as an independent. In 1884, he ran again for Congress and lost, but this time as a Democrat. In 1892 he ran for governor as the Greenback Party candidate and lost. Donnelly then became the editor of the Anti-Monopolist Party newspaper. Finally, in 1900, he was the the unsuccessful vice presidential nominee of the national Populist Party.
Always a radical reformer, Donnelly became a champion of 19th-century farmers. Yet his national and international reputations were made not as a political figure, but as a literary one. His best-selling books on lost Atlantis and on Shakespeare made him known throughout the world. He was also one of the great orators of his day. Donnelly travelled tirelessly throughout the rural areas of Minnesota proclaiming the rights and interests of farmers. There is the famous story of when he once spoke to a group of farmers who disagreed with his theories and began to pelt him with cabbages. Finally picking up one of the cabbages, Donnelly yelled back at the hostile crowd, "I asked you to give me your ears, not your heads!"
I mention all of this here because the Republican Party today has an extraordinary visionary character named Newt Gingrich. I don't want to make too much of the comparison, but Mr. Gingrich also was born in Pennsylvania and ended up moving to Georgia where he made quite a political career for himself, getting elected to Congress and ending up as Speaker of the House. But unlike Donnelly, however, he has remained loyal to his original party, albeit as a reformer and a man of very original conservative ideas.
In interests of full disclosure, I will note here that I have known Mr. Gingrich since 1984. I have never worked for him, but I have enjoyed more than two decades of conversations about public policy, politics and Abraham Lincoln with him, and recently worked with him on the February Cooper Union dialogue that featured former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo and Mr. Gingrich in an innovative campaign format. That project got much attention, but didn't catch on. Undaunted, Mr. Gingrich has proposed nine debates between the party nominees for the final part of the 2008 campaign. That may yet catch on. Rudy Giuliani has pledged that if nominated he will participate.
Mr. Gingrich has been dropping unsubtle hints from time to time that he might run himself for president in 2008. He is usually up in the polls, although behind the frontrunners. Fred Thompson's imminent candidacy has put a damper on Mr. Gingrich's candidacy because they share a conservative grass-roots Republican base. But if Mr. Thompson's effort fails to take off, Mr. Gingrich could well get in later in the year.
His mastery of domestic public policy and international military strategy (he is a consultant to the Defense Department) dominates virtually every discussion he's in. Mr. Gingrich's remarkable public-speaking skills make him a favorite on the political speaking circuit, and on television and radio talk shows. His criticism of the conduct of the war in Iraq and the omnibus immigration bill, and his outspoken advocacy of social conservatism, have created a grass-roots following for him in every state. His imaginative, pragmatic solutions to critical issues facing the nation have created a base for him among independent voters as well. His visionary books on public policy, and his best-selling novels (in collaboration with historian William Forstchen) on the Civil War and on the war with Japan have brought him a national and international readership.
Ignatius Donnelly died without reaching many of his youthful dreams. Mr. Gingrich has already reached some of his, and now aims higher. He has his political warts, and recently when a few political cabbages were thrown at him, he called the GOP presidential field "pygmies." What are the Republicans going to do with Newt Gingrich?
Barry Casselman writes about national politics for Preludium News Service.