Reporter’s note: This article was originally posted to the Xpress website Jan. 3, on the day of the Iowa caucuses. After topping the polls in early December, Newt Gingrich placed fourth in that race, and many observers subsequently dismissed his candidacy.
However, Gingrich’s huge win yesterday, Jan. 22, in the South Carolina primary, has brought renewed interest to his campaign – and has considerably increased his chances of being the Republican nominee for president of the United States, facing incumbent Barack Obama in the fall. In light of that fact – and in case you missed it the first time around – we thought it fitting to post this interview prominently again on the homepage. In this piece, local author/historian Bill Forstchen of Black Mountain shares a wide range of thoughts on his good friend and colleague.
The original post:
In the wake of releasing the ninth book he’s co-written with presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, local author/historian Bill Forstchen now finds himself in the throes of the Republican primary.
The Battle of the Crater is a brutal tale concerning an unorthodox assault gone wrong. The novel depicts a little-known 1864 Civil War confrontation in which Union soldiers built a tunnel under Confederate lines in Petersburg, Va., and filled it with explosives. In the ensuing chaotic battle, Union forces became trapped in their own explosion’s crater and were massacred — including a division of black soldiers, the 28th Regiment United States Colored Troops.
In advance of the Jan. 3 Iowa caucuses, some of Gingrich’s critics have been dissecting the account, accusing its authors of political pandering. But Forstchen, a Montreat College professor who wrote his dissertation on a related aspect of the Civil War, maintains that historical accuracy was their No. 1 concern.
Controversy isn’t new for Forstchen. In his 2009 release, One Second After, he delved into the idea that the gravest threat to U.S. security might be the potential for an electromagnetic-pulse attack — a nuclear assault high in the atmosphere that would wipe out the country’s electronic circuitry. (See “Apocalypse WNC,” July 7, 2009 Xpress). Gingrich wrote a foreward to the novel and has since cited it as proof of the need to halt Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs. Meanwhile, some have argued that the idea is far-fetched; a recent New York Times piece critiquing Gingrich’s belief in the theory cited Forstchen and his book — as well as a host of critics downplaying their fears.
Forstchen says he eventually plans to write a biography on his friend and colleague. In the meantime, he recently sat down with Xpress over lunch to share some thoughts on Gingrich, the current media attention and more. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
On working with Gingrich:
He’s truly a co-author. This is not some kind of vanity thing, where his name is on it and I’m the one who slaves in the basement. As we’re working on a book, we try to get together for a couple days to hash out an outline. The publisher will suggest, “Why don’t you do this topic or that?” Our Revolutionary War series started that way, with To Try Men’s Souls.
Once we do the outline, then I go back. OK, I do a lot of the drafting. But Newt is in there every day. Every day as I’m finishing up a draft, I’m emailing stuff up to him. … So there’s constant communication throughout. He’s inputting stuff as well.
And it sort of goes into a blender. I’ll joke at times when I get asked, “Well, what part did you write and what part did Newt write?” and I say, “Well, he does the nouns, I do the verbs and adverbs.” It’s hard. It’s like two people baking a cake. Which layer of the cake belongs to whom?
It’s an ongoing process. We both believe that good historical fiction can turn people on to wanting to learn the real history. Let’s face it, most history books are pretty darn boring. …
Not many people know this, but Newt is one of Amazon’s top 500 book reviewers. He’s voracious: He reads at least a book a day.
There’s actually a running joke with one of our FedEx guys. When we’re working on a book, every couple weeks a box will arrive. And I say to the FedEx guy, “Let me guess: It’s more stuff from Newt?” And he says, “Yup.” It amazes me.
Now granted, with the campaign and such, his focus is more there. But up until recently, I’ll open the box and there’ll be four or five scholarly type books, like a biography of Burnside or something. And the whole book, from beginning to end, is annotated in his handwriting. And then he’ll make sticky notes, like “Should we use this?” or “This contradicts what we agreed upon earlier. What do you think?” I’ve got whole shelves of annotated books from Newt Gingrich. And if he becomes president, think about how much those books are going to be worth [laughs] — but that’s not my motivation.
On being drawn into the presidential campaign:
I’m enjoying it most of the time. I am helping out with the campaign. Hey, he’s been my friend for 19 years, and I’ll support him until the end.
I really mean it: He’s the most brilliant man I’ve ever met in my entire life. And hey, I work in academia. This guy, he’s a genius. I’ve sat with him, and we’re talking about some minutia about “Where is this gun placement in Petersburg?” The phone rings, and he shifts into something about health-care reform. And then a staffer walks up, and he’s talking about “What’s this going on?” And 20 minutes later, he turns back to me and says, “Now, regarding battery No. 14.” And I sit there and I go, like, “How do you do this?”
I’ve never met a guy with such intellect.
Romney made a comment the other day sort of mocking the idea of a historian being in the White House. I’m a historian; I’d like to see a historian in the White House. …
I compare him to Winston Churchill. He had that same intellectual background. And he has the perspective it grants. …
Winston Churchill comes back from the Sudan War in the 1890s, then the Boer War. Writes two best-selling books. Goes on to write some historical novels, some fiction, goes back in the government in World War I. Falls from power. Do we see a connection here, perhaps? It’s called “the wilderness years.” Churchill wrote something like 30 or 40 books. He was working on his famous A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which I’ve used as a textbook. And he was racing to finish that while watching the clock tick down to World War II. Then being called back to save Western civilization. …
I don’t want to trash any particular candidate, but when someone can’t quite recall what cabinet offices there are that he wants to eliminate? I contrast that to Newt, who if he was sitting here right now, he could recite the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Abraham Lincoln’s greatest speeches. … He has that grasp.
On the political considerations and fallout from The Battle of the Crater:
I’d say for both of us, historical accuracy, pleasant or not, we both adhere to. It’s about the most controversial battle of the war, and one that was really brushed over and forgotten. There was darkness on both sides. …
I spent two years on this. And I’m a historian and author who is very, very pro for the USCTs. I want their story told correctly and accurately.
The Battle of the Crater is one of the most brutal battles of the war. Newt and I did talk about “How’s this going to be perceived?” But the other side of the story is we want to set the record straight about what really happened there.
Black soldiers carried the burden in what was really a faked-up mock trial afterward — of having lost the battle when they had not. It was a command decision higher up the ladder that lost it.
On the recent New York Times coverage of electromagnetic-pulse attacks:
The author knows less than zero about the science. The one person the author quoted has zero reputation amongst the group of people actually working on EMP, has zero background but is trumpeted as some sort of expert on it. I’ve worked on the issue of EMP for 5 years. … The New York Times never bothered to call one person who knew what they were talking about. …
I just wished it was fair and balanced. But I know that’s not going to happen in a campaign. …
The frustration is when someone gets something really wacky wrong, and then it takes on a life of its own. I’m working to get more accurate message out in the media.
I can handle criticism. Like, I’ve had people really rip the book on EMP on a variety of issues. I wrote one of the writers, and I said, “it hurts, but at least you gave it a fair shake.”
The ones that just drive me crazy are the ones that go at it – maybe just because it’s Newt’s name, or whatever. The thing that scares me most about our culture today? We’ve stopped talking to each other. Everyone’s screaming at each other. That’s a bad sign.
On how he thinks the campaign’s going:
Great. He keeps pushing the idea of Lincoln-Douglas debates. Newt and I have been talking about that for years. … How do you take the pending collapse of Social Security in 30 seconds? I don’t watch most of the debates, because I get too upset. I just read the stuff later.
I want to see a candidate who has the time and the intellect to be able to articulate clearly to the American people. To try to explain Social Security, you’ve got to understand the historical perspective of the one who started it.
On Gingrich’s caring friendship:
I lost both my parents. I’m Catholic, and both my mother and father are buried with rosaries blessed by the pope — which, to a Catholic, has some significance. Those were sent to me by Newt the day after my parents died. … Amid all the other things he’s doing in his life, to take a moment to do that, that’s a friend. I’ve got a dozen more stories like that. …
As a friend — as both of them ended the last days of their life — he was calling me every day. “How are you doing?” Is there anything I can do for you? Is there anything I can do to help?”
About a week after my father died, Newt called me up and said, “How are you doing?” And it had been a very rough passage for my dad. He had been in a nursing home, in hospice for a year-and-a-half. And he said, “Look, I’ve got a room reserved for you at The Willard. Talk to my assistant about the flight schedule. I want you and your wife to come up for the weekend and just relax. We’ll get together for dinner. I said, You can’t do that.” He said, “I’ve just done it.” …
So, win or lose, I’m with him until the end. It’s more than a political thing. … I wish everybody in the country could just sit with this guy and talk to him one-on-one.
On the night it was decided he was going to be speaker of the House, I was in the campaign headquarters. I think I can claim I was the first one to say, “Congratulations Mr. Speaker.” … I was there as a friend, and the place went berserk. …
A couple hours pass, I turn to my wife and it’s like, “Let’s go home.” We’re walking out, and a staffer comes up to me and says, Dr. Forstchen, Newt’s having a meeting and he’d like you to sit in. And it’s the inner, inner circle: key advisers, staff, about 10 people. I’m a new guy; I had known him about eight months at that point. …
Newt looked at me, smiled and said, “Bill’s a historian: Maybe you want to sit in?” I was like, “Cool.” Don’t we all have this image that all the doors are closed, everyone looks around and they all start laughing and high-fiving each other, and it’s like, “We’ve got the power now — we can get rid of this guy,” like a bad movie.
Newt gave a little talk. And as an American, he had a choke in his voice, and he said: “Do you realize the responsibility that’s been given to us this night? We can change Congress.”
I was in tears. I was like, “Oh my god, is this real? The guy who’s the speaker of the House isn’t talking about how we can con more money out of someone or something? Instead, it was “What do we do to serve the American people, to serve our country? And I’m going to ask each of you for your opinion.” … And Newt was just sitting there with a yellow pad, writing people’s ideas down. One staffer was in tears talking about the issue of homelessness. …
And I thought, “If I wrote about this, people wouldn’t believe it.” … It was one of the most patriotic things I’ve ever seen.
On the possibility of working in a Gingrich White House if he were offered a job:
Of course I would! I mean, god, I’m an American. I’m a historian. … If Newt feels there’s a way I can serve America, I’ll do it.
On whether he thinks Gingrich will win:
Yes, if we stop a political process that has reduced elections to Entertainment Tonight. Because that’s what it’s become.