When Republicans took control of the US Congress three years ago, Newt Gingrich seemed destined to become the nation's first Cyberspeaker. The Georgia Republican loved to talk about leading America into the Information Age, about laptop computers for every school-age child, and about making the whole universe of government documents accessible on the Internet.
While the Speaker still holds fast to those objectives, it turns out that, like a lot of people, Gingrich is more talk than action when it comes to personally taking advantage of the technology available in today's information-based network.
Although he has a personal computer and a laptop, he uses them only for word processing. He does not browse the Internet; his daily schedule is handed to him on paper each morning; he conducts meetings the old-fashioned way - in person; and he does not carry a cell phone, though many of his top aides do.
"I think it's a major mistake on our part," Gingrich said of his office's failure to set a higher technological standard. "We're trying to set up a planning department that would do that." Asked whether he ever uses the Internet, he said, "Not really."
The third most powerful politician in America has a ready excuse for lagging behind the times, and it may be reassuring for mere mortals to know that it is not unlike the one invoked by techno-dummies everywhere: He said he is just too busy.
"You have to understand my schedule," Gingrich said in a recent interview. "I do almost nothing but meet. I am in meetings 16 hours a day. I work close to 100 hours a week. I'm either giving a speech, sleeping on an airplane, or in a meeting."
In his Capitol office, the Speaker has a three-year-old Compaq Desk Pro, with 48 megabytes of RAM, a typical machine for Capitol Hill. He uses the WordPerfect word processing program and Lotus Notes e-mail software. The ever-mobile Gingrich said he more frequently employs his 486 laptop computer, which he currently is using to write a fourth book, on what he has learned about leadership.
The Speaker has his own World Wide Web site, as do the other top three House Republican leaders - majority leader Dick Armey of Texas, majority whip Tom DeLay of Texas, and conference chairman John A. Boehner of Ohio. The Speaker's page (speakernews.house.gov) offers links to information on the other leaders' pages and features current Republican issues. Recently, for instance, it carried information about a GOP proposal to overhaul the IRS and tax code. His Web site is getting about 20,000 "hits" a day, up from a few hundred when it went online last June, an aide said.
Gingrich learned early in his speakership that technology, even the kind that you have mastered, is not always your friend. When he and his restless allies were in the minority, they pioneered the use of C-SPAN as a means to get across political messages that were otherwise ignored. They transformed the traditionally dry, one-minute speeches allotted House members each morning into mini-dramas about the evils of the Democratic majority.
So it seemed natural in 1995, when he became Speaker, for Gingrich to insist his daily news briefings be broadcast nationally on C-SPAN so, as he put it, "People around the country can see what I actually say."
But four months later, after testy, televised exchanges with reporters, Gingrich ended his infatuation with C-SPAN and stopped the briefings. His then-press secretary Tony Blankley said the televised briefings were doing nothing to enhance the Speaker's image. So much for giving everyday people a closer look at government in action.
* This article was adapted from a Nov. 29 Congressional Quarterly column.