Gingrich: High-Tech Candidate Dubbed 'Newt Skywalker'

Monday, 12 Dec 2011 11:06 AM

By Dan Weil

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Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich is well known for being a historian, but the former House Speaker also is a futurist with a keen interest in technology, Politico reports.

His fascination with the field is strong enough that the media took to dubbing him “Newt Skywalker” in the 1980s and '90s. He even appeared on the cover of Wired magazine.

Gingrich “instinctively talks about the historical role of technology,” Ralph Hellmann, the top lobbyist at the Information Technology Industry Council, who worked for Gingrich in the late 1980s and with him when he was Speaker, told Politico. “He can talk about technology in the 1800s, the 1900s and what it's doing today,” he said. “He has a natural inclination to learn, and I think that shows.”

Gingrich’s involvement with technology may serve him well as he attempts to challenge GOP front-runner Mitt Romney in Silicon Valley, where the former Massachusetts governor already has snagged the endorsements of Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman and Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy.

“Newt is brilliant,” Tim Draper, a venture capitalist in Silicon Valley who is helping Romney raise money, told Politico. “He has a deep understanding of many technologies. But more importantly, he studied Silicon Valley, and I believe he has a good understanding of why it works.”

McNealy told Politico he speaks regularly with Gingrich but supports Romney in part because he wants "someone who is a problem fixer and has been a CEO, who knows how to build a team around him." Still, Gingrich is "sensitive to innovation, to job creation, to startups, and not having the government doing but getting out of the way," McNealy said. Gingrich "is a spectacular idea guy."

At the candidates debate Saturday, Romney attacked Gingrich’s technology credentials. When asked what separates the two, Romney said, “We can start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon.”

Gingrich’s response: “I grew up in a generation when the space program was real, when it was important.”

Some observers say both candidates understand the importance of technology – they just view it from different perspectives.

Gingrich sees technology as a way for the general public to gain information and interact without the government and traditional media. Romney prefers to focus on how technology can be made practical for business.

As House speaker in the 1990s, Gingrich gave attention to issues such as data scrambling technologies and freedom of speech on the Internet. He played a key role in starting Thomas, the Library of Congress website that provides information about bills. He started the High Technology Working Group, now the Technology Working Group, which consists of Republican leaders working on tech issues.

Gingrich took libertarian stances on the Internet, even when they caused friction with other Republicans. For example, in 1996, Speaker Gingrich fought an effort to erase pornography from the Internet.

He opposed a bill, later struck down by the Supreme Court, which would have banned indecent materials on the web and made intermediaries, such as Internet service providers, responsible for policing Internet content.

Gingrich said the bill wouldn’t protect children, even as it intruded on the rights of adults. Gingrich pushed for an alternative that emphasized parental education, teaming with then-Reps. Chris Cox, R-Calif., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

"He should be credited with helping to promote a solution to come out against regulation that would have thwarted free speech and the vibrant Internet we know today,” Jerry Berman, founder of the Center for Democracy and Technology, told Politico.

As a presidential candidate, Gingrich hasn’t focused much on technology so far, though he has said the federal government should be more nimble and efficient like the tech industry. Gingrich is planning a major policy speech on technology early next year, a source close to the campaign told Politico.

Gingrich’s supporters see his tech credentials as a major asset. “He would probably be the most knowledgeable president on technology issues ever elected,” former Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Walker, who was chairman of the House Science Committee, told Politico.


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