Back to the Future: A Democrat Recalls Newt Gingrich’s Moon Plan

Ben Jacobs on an era that now sounds like science fiction, when Gingrich would cross the aisle to build bipartisan support.

AP Photo

It was a more collegial time in Washington, one when a young Newt Gingrich routinely reached across the aisle since that was simply how legislative business was done.

Asked why he cosponsored Newt Gingrich’s “Northwest Ordinance for Space” in 1981, Tim Wirth laughed. The former Democratic congressman from Colorado who later served one term in the Senate didn’t have the slightest memory of the bill or its language. When I described it to him, noting the bill’s provision for codifying the process to eventually admit a space colony as a state, he guffawed, saying, “that sounds pretty wacky.”

But it took him back to another world—not one of manned missions to Venus and human settlement on the moon, as described in the bill—but a far more strange one, where Democrats and Republicans routinely worked together.

Wirth described his friendly relationship with Gingrich as a “young member of Congress . . . before his leadership stuff.” To the ex-Colorado senator, Gingrich was a “very interesting guy. ” They even traveled to each other’s districts to meet the others’ constituents. It was “a different world” said Wirth, who reminisced fondly about the work he did with “Jackie Kemp,” the former Republican congressman from New York and Bob Dole’s running mate in 1996.

Although Wirth was unable to recall Gingrich’s bill, let almost why he signed on as a cosponsor, he said it “could well have been a favor to a friend.” As a member of the House Science Committee at the time, his cosponsorship would have been helpful toward securing a hearing for the bill. Signing on would have been the collegial thing to do, said Wirth. “it’s not as if cosponsoring was a great big deal. It helps them along and helps them get a hearing, you don’t do a huge analysis.”

Gingrich’s bill finally had 12 cosponsors, including five Democrats. Hearing the list, Wirth couldn’t divine a pattern. He laughed while fondly recalling “Texas Charlie” Wilson (immortalized in the film Charlie Wilson’s War) and “B-1 Bob” Dornan, the right-wing Republican from Orange County. There was “nothing that ties that group together” and “no common thread” that Wirth could identify. He speculated that the group came about from “Newt going around the floor, looking for a cosponsor.” It was just “the way [Congress] operated” then, he said, with an ethos of “we’re all in this together and we try to help each other out and we try to cooperate.”

In the 30 years since, Gingrich hounded Democratic speakers with ethics charges only to have his own timer as speaker cut short in large part because Democrats used the same tactic to hound him) and used the political action committee he controlled to help train a generation of Republicans, including Rick Santorum, in the Orwellian virtues of language as a “key mechanism of control” to define Democrats as "corrupt," "anti-flag" "traitors." In his unlikely presidential run, Gingrich has attacked Obama as the “food-stamp president” intent on imposing a “brand-new secular Europe-style bureaucratic socialist system” on America. The aisle-crossing Gingrich of 30 years back seems as unlikely and fantastic today as a colony on the moon.