You're in a ballroom at Washington's Mayflower Hotel, waiting for the vice president of the United States to make his grand entrance, and trying desperately to do what any sensible person does in anticipation of a sustained piece of oratory by Al Gore: order another cup of coffee. Black. You suspect Gore's imminent arrival because, for one thing, the Secret Service agents have started twitching, and for another, Michael Nelson has just come shuffling in. Nelson is one of Gore's tame technology experts, and on occasions such as this (the Net-worked Economy Conference, which takes place in Washington, DC, every September), his boyish, friendly face is never far from that of his boss.
But as he hovers over a seated John Perry Barlow, Nelson looks pained. On the table is the inaugural issue of George, John Kennedy Jr.'s new political magazine, open to an interview by Barlow, America's most hippified Republican cybernaut, with its most powerful one, Newt Gingrich. "This whole 'Newt's wired' thing is a bunch of hype," Nelson grumbles. "He talks and talks and talks, but who's really done the most to get the information superhighway built?"
Just then, the answer to Nelson's question walks in, his gait so stiff it looks like someone slipped a two-by-four up the back of his suit jacket. He mounts the podium, launches into his standard ain't-fibre-optics-great spiel, and after 10 wooden minutes, you're cursing your failure to secure the requisite caffeine.
Then, suddenly, Gore comes alive.
"The telecommunications bills pending before the Congress ... and especially the House bill, represent a contract with 100 companies," he declares. "The highest bidders, not the highest principles, have set the bar." His voice steadily rising, Gore attacks virtually every aspect of the Republican stab at telecom reform. The bills, he says, protect monopolies. They promote ever-greater concentrations of power. They disdain the public interest. And, together with budget cuts in a wide array of high-tech programs, they represent an historic abandonment of the "creative partnership" between government and the private sector that helped spawn the Internet.
"My friends," - by now Gore is practically shouting, his index finger slashing at the air - "America's technological future is under attack by short-sighted ideologues, who pretend to understand history, but in fact have no understanding whatsoever."
The shot at Gingrich is sharp, unsubtle - and would have seemed even more pointed if its target had addressed the conference, as scheduled, an hour earlier. But Gingrich begged off at the last minute, citing urgent meetings on the budget and on Medicare. Gore's people are incredulous. They think that the Speaker pulled out as soon as he learned the vice president was actually going to show. That Gingrich realised he'd be upstaged and decided to stay on Capitol Hill.
All of which sounds a little improbable, until you recall the way the grown men in both the Gore and Gingrich camps start sounding like petty children when they talk about each other. The way, for instance, Gingrich ridiculed Gore as "totally Second Wave" when it was suggested to him that the vice president was the country's most computer-friendly elected official. Or the way a Gore aide explained his boss' refusal to be interviewed for this feature after learning it would be about him and the Speaker: "We have no desire to elevate Newt to our level."
And you think, Man, even by Washington standards, this is one mean rivalry.
Until a year or so ago, it was no contest. After a long career in Congress and a vice-presidential campaign spent extolling the wonders of computer networks, Gore was widely seen as Mr. Information Superhighway and Gingrich as little more than a right-wing bombthrower. Then everything changed. Propelled into the House speakership by the Republican rout of 1994, Gingrich began using his new platform to offer his own grand (not to mention grandiose) views about the empowering effects of communications technology - views, in fact, he had been formulating for many years with the help of people like futurist Alvin Toffler.
And so it was that 1995 saw the start of a pitched competition between Newt Gingrich and Al Gore to be America's most digital politician. In a way, the competition is just the flashiest side of Washington's new space race: the sprint for cyberspace. Where once the capital was interminably low-tech, now ... well, it still is, but the parties are trying to get with (or, at least, to be perceived as getting with) the programme. It's comical. Republican presidential candidates boast of websites they can't describe, let alone locate, while Congressional Democrats call press conferences to press the claim that, on the Net if not the Hill, they are still the majority party.
But the competition between Gore and Gingrich is serious. It is about more than image, about more than personality, though it is certainly about those things, too. It is about two radically differing visions, both plausible, of the proper relationship between the federal government and the emerging etherworld.
"These two guys are fighting to capture the public's imagination, and the stakes are absolutely enormous," says Marc Rotenberg, the director of the Electronic Privacy Information Centre and one of the most prominent Washington, DC-based public-interest lobbyists. "On competition, access, privacy and rights, they're fighting over the future of America's communications and information infrastructure."
The fight is not so much about what that future will look like as it is about how to get there - a fact that Gingrich and his allies try constantly to obscure. "Gore talks about highways, a pure industrial-age model," intones the Speaker. "I talk about cyberspace." But although the two use a different language to describe what they see in their crystal balls, the view itself is much the same. Digital, connected, decentralised, ubiquitous: a network of networks, controlled by no one, buzzing with competition among firms of all sizes and among innovative individuals, but with plenty of room for those who want just to talk. A future for which, both men will tell you, America's ancien r/gime of communications regulation is profoundly unsuited.
Where Gingrich and Gore part ways is over the shape of the nouveau. Gore, a classic New Democrat, has laboured to fashion a "third way" between the bureaucratic state and the libertarian antistate. He wants to deregulate, but not too fast. He favours the market, but worries about market failures. Such qualms don't stop Gingrich. A self-styled "conservative futurist," his belief in the private sector knows few bounds; his beliefs about Washington border on contempt. The Gore-Gingrich fight is a fight between government as referee and government as spectator.
The debate this year over telecom deregulation was the first sally in a battle which promises to be long and bloody. When this article went to press, the fate of the Republican bills, which sought to overhaul the Communications Act of 1934, was far from clear. What was clear, however, was that Gore thought Gingrich had already gone too far towards the free market in telecom, that he intended to go even further, and that neither was likely to give in lightly. Both realise, as only a few politicians do, how central these questions are to the progress of the nation's economy and culture. And both know how crucial their answers are to their positions as leading figures of their respective parties.
It's no accident that the men who have always been ahead of the curve, men Alvin Toffler calls "the two leading futurists in American political life," find themselves second and third in the line of presidential succession. It's also no secret that both men hope, one day, to receive a promotion.
The look that flashes out of Gingrich's eyes whenever somebody says something he considers fatuous or obtuse is the most entertaining facial display Washington has seen since the days of John Sununu. It's a cruel look, a look of total scorn. And it's the look he takes on, one afternoon in his office, when confronted with the theory that he and Gore have quite a bit in common.
"Totally superficial," Gingrich sniffs, leaning back in his chair and stretching his trademark tartan tie (an adopted child, his natural father was a McPherson) over his belly. "I suppose I can see how some people might say we're kindred spirits. We share the large-systems perspective. We agree that information technology matters. We agree that the environment matters. We agree that it's important to care about the future. But after that, our visions diverge almost entirely. The model Gore is trying to build is a futurist version of the welfare state. He's repainting the study; I want to build a whole new house. My project, frankly, is to replace his world." Gingrich pauses, smiles. "If I had said that to you a year ago, it would've been hubris. Now, it's just a fact."
It is a fact. On that summer day, a few hundred yards away, the House subcommittee dealing with telecom was conducting a hearing - with the Speaker's avid blessing - on the future of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In the witness chair, the FCC's chairman and Gore's old pal from prep school, Reed Hundt, was defending his agency. Back inside the Capitol, Gingrich was talking about "something Al Gore could never conceive of": eliminating it.
Yet, despite the deep and real differences that separate Gore and Gingrich, the similarities the Speaker dismisses as "superficial" were enough, years ago, to forge a strange-bedfellows bond between the two baby-boom politicos. From the time they arrived in the House (Gore in 1976, Gingrich in 1979), both were seen by their peers as intelligent, ambitious and a touch weird. They were science - and science fiction - buffs. They were intrigued - not scared - by computers. And they referred to themselves - in public, no less - as futurists.
People embracing that label were as rare as socialists in Congress, and they were all members of the same club: the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future. Founded in 1976 by Charlie Rose, a Democratic representative from North Carolina, and a dozen members from the House, the Clearinghouse was a kind of in-house think tank intended as an antidote to the institutional short-termism of Congress. Every few weeks the group would gather for well-attended lunches addressed by speakers such as anthropologist Margaret Mead and cosmologist Carl Sagan; every so often its tiny staff would produce a paper on a leading-edge issue such as global warming.
It was here, as leaders of the Clearinghouse - Gore was even its chair for a time - that the two got to know and respect one another. There were chats, meetings, dinners at each other's homes. "They were kind of like the odd couple," recalls Peter Knight, Gore's chief of staff from 1977 to 1989. "Gingrich was blasting people left and right, trying to throw out the Speaker [Texas Democrat Jim Wright]. Gore was hardly a bombthrower. But there was this little corner of intellectual curiosity they pursued together." Another Gore friend says, "The Clearinghouse was like their DMZ. They didn't interact that much, but in certain areas, there was common ground."
Most memorably, there was the Critical Trends Assessment Act. In 1985, Gore (by then a senator) and Gingrich joined forces to introduce legislation to establish an office in the White House to look 20 years ahead and puzzle out the "potential effects of government policies on critical trends and alternative futures." Staffers called the measure the "foresight bill." Critics called it the "futurists' full-employment act."
By whatever name, it went nowhere. "There were two reactions," says Bruce Reed, then one of Gore's speechwriters, now a White House domestic-policy aide. "Some people thought it sounded like a Big-Brother, central-planning, government-by-commission nightmare. The rest thought it just sounded loony."
Actually, there was a third reaction, that of a handful of people such as Alvin Toffler, who saw the bill for what it was: a small gesture to make a large point. Like the Clearinghouse, the main function of a White House critical-trends office would have been to nudge politicians to think past the next election; a proposed annual budget of US$5 million (£3.1 million) made charges of big-governmentism laughable. To Toffler, the backlash was a sign that most members of Congress were hopelessly reactionary, and that Gingrich and Gore were the two most significant exceptions.
It wasn't the first sign, at least not to Toffler. He and his wife, Heidi, had met Gingrich in the early '70s, when Gingrich - then an assistant professor of history at West Georgia College - flew to Chicago to hear Toffler speak. A close friendship developed. Toffler knew Gore less well, mainly through the Clearinghouse, but he had keenly followed the career of the senator from Tennessee. (Gore repays the compliment: he has read much of Toffler's writing, and has quietly encouraged Bill Clinton to do the same.)
"Gingrich and Gore know that this is a revolutionary situation," says Toffler. "If you assume the changes society is under-going are extensions of the old industrial order, you're totally wrong, and they got that. Both of them understood, in a general intellectual way, that the old rules and old games no longer work - that the changes we're living through are enormous, qualitative, transformative."
Like Toffler, Gore and Gingrich believed that the most fundamental of these changes were taking place in, or being driven by, computing and communications technology. This was not big news in Silicon Valley or Tokyo during the '80s. But in Washington, the belief placed the two men on the outer fringes - the cutting edge, that is - of the political establishment. Each became a leader of a group of like-minded politicos, the loose coalition of Atari Democrats and the more formal Conservative Opportunity Society, which defined itself in opposition to the rank technophobia that gripped both parties.
From there, Gingrich and Gore have gone in utterly distinct directions. This is perhaps unsurprising, given that the latter is, in the phrase of his friend, former Representative Tom Downey, "a capital-D Democrat," while the former is, in his own words, "a throwback to Hayek, a 1930s, laissez-faire, free-market radical." But ideology explains only part of it. On matters digital, the difference between Gore and Gingrich is not simply one of substance, but one of style: Gingrich is high concept. Gore is high content.
Style matters. In politics, it's often a large part of the difference between types of leadership. In the case of Newt and Al, it was far and away the largest part. As a member of Congress's permanent (or so it seemed) Republican minority, Gingrich gave short shrift to details, not being in a position to influence them much. He stuck to the big picture, the grand design, the vision thing: high concept. Gore went the other way, diving headlong into the nitty-gritty, the tedium of hearings, the wheedling and cajoling and hustling for votes: high content. And for a time at least, it seemed to be working.
Behind every lasting metaphor is a myth, and information superhighway is no exception. As Gore tells it, he first coined his famous phrase at a meeting with a few computer-industry folk in 1978, in homage to his father, Senator Albert Sr., whose efforts in the 1950s helped establish the interstate highway system. But Gore's inner circle remembers it differently. Some say the meeting took place in 1981, or 1983, or 1986. Some aren't even sure the phrase was Gore's. "I think," says Roy Neel, another of his ex-chiefs of staff, "we might have stolen it from somewhere."
That Al Gore's mythmakers cannot get their stories straight is not as strange as it may seem. The term information superhighway would become an indelible (and maddeningly inescapable) part of the national conversation, but it was originally not much more than a catchy way of selling a concept for which there were few buyers. Gore's advisers saw little political payoff in his fascination with networks of fibre. Who cared what he called them?
Gore's older colleagues - he was only 28 when elected to the House, 36 when he entered the Senate - were equally baffled by his voracious appetite for unsexy science issues. "Many senior members dismissed him as this techie," says Neel. And although the later trendiness of some of those issues, such as climate change, makes it tempting to credit Gore with uncanny political foresight, the truth is that his interest sprung from a simpler character trait: nerdiness.
On biotech, on environmental issues, on arms control, Gore dug for detail to a depth rare among politicians. So, too, with information technology. Nelson speaks of countless suppers with the likes of Danny Hillis, the founder of Thinking Machines, where Gore played the humble pupil, being schooled on the difference between single-instruction and multiple-instruction processors, or between circuit- and packet-switching. More prosaically, Gore was one of the first members of Congress to set up a LAN in his office, and in due course became an e-mail nut. "Our network was connected to Al's home," says Knight, "so you'd get messages from him at all hours of the day and night."
The result of Gore's immersion in the wired world, recalls Larry Smarr, direc-tor of the National Centre for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois, was that by the mid-'80s, "Gore's sophistication on computer and net-work technology was miles higher than anyone in politics, and as high as that of some scientists."
In 1988, Gore decided to turn his studies into substance. In the Senate science subcommittee of which he had quickly become chair, Gore began holding hearings that would ultimately lead to the passage of the National High-Performance Computer Technology Act of 1991. Though supported by the Bush administration ("after we spent two years convincing them it was their idea," chides Nelson) and by Gingrich, the bill was vintage Gore: pro-government but not big-government. Its premise, described by Gore, was that "though the marketplace will eventually enable the network to be financed by the private sector, we need to get it past the initial resistance, the inertia that is out there." Its most immediate effect was to boost federal support for the Internet by about US$1 billion (£625 million) a year.
The other big boost the bill provided was to Gore's reputation. Those science subcommittee hearings were famously high-content affairs, with Gore rattling off sharp questions and even sharper answers - including a prediction, four years or so before it became conventional wisdom, that Japan's HDTV system was doomed because it wasn't digital. Even by standards more exacting than the desultory ones normally applied to the Senate, the hearings were a virtuoso performance.
But not exactly a visionary one. Gore was as aware as anyone that the social and economic implications of a digital, connected culture would be staggering. Yet the most persistent image he offered of the coming upheaval was that of "a little girl in Carthage, Tennessee" - Gore's childhood home - "going home after school, settling down in front of a machine not much different from today's Nintendo, and having at her fingertips all the information in the Library of Congress." He talked about linking colleges and labs and libraries. He talked about telemedicine. Worthy stuff. But the talk was often dull, as Gore often is, and, as Roy Neel puts it, "sometimes long on detail and short on the thing Newt's so good at - a sense of drama, of grand sweep."
But it was not Gingrich who was Gore's nemesis in 1992. It was George Bush.And compared with the president's cluelessness (remember his amazement when he discovered supermarket scanners?), Gore's slightly pallid details sounded like Arthur C. Clarke's wildest dreams. The details paid dividends, both for him personally and for a Democratic ticket that claimed to have broken free of the shackles of the past. Touting the information highway was surely more forward-looking than pandering to highway-workers' unions, and it helped reel in a clutch of leading-edge constituencies that would have never dreamed of backing Walter Mondale or Michael Dukakis.
Silicon Valley, for instance. First there was the mass endorsement of its CEOs. Then came the appearance of John Sculley (at that time a plausible figure, sort of) at the first lady's side at the State of the Union address. Days later, when Clinton and Gore visited Silicon Graphics Inc. to check out a demo or three and talk up Gore's notion of a "national information infrastructure" (NII), a hero's welcome awaited them. Returning to Washington, Gore dispatched his policy gurus to consult cyberspace's /lite political corps, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), on the principles that would underlie the National Information Infrastructure. Democrats controlled Congress; telecom reform seemed to be in the bag.
It wasn't. Nothing was.
For most of the Clinton administration's first year, Gore's bright young things worked on a package of legislative proposals, which the vice president unveiled at a heavily touted speech in Los Angeles in January 1994. The package was broadly deregulatory. It reflected Gore's concern about a possible schism between "information haves and have-nots." It endorsed the continuation of universal service in the interactive age. And it advocated that a new section be added to the Communications Act as Title VII, which would, in the future, let providers of broadband services opt out of the old regulatory regime and choose an "open access" model along the lines championed by the EFF.
Then the administration forgot about it. The forgetfulness came at the request of Representatives John Dingell and Jack Brooks, and Senator Ernest Hollings, the three old bulls with authority over telecom. We know this issue, they snorted; we're all Democrats - leave it to us. Which is what Gore did. In the House, a reform bill not unlike the White House's white paper (except, notably, without a trace of Title VII) passed easily. Almost every Republican, including Gingrich, supported it. However in the Senate, the entire endeavour fell to pieces in the waning, gridlocked days of 1994.
Gore's supporters are at pains to explain why, despite this thudding collapse, the vice president's strategy was the right one. "Look, the fact is that John Dingell and Fritz Hollings were going to make or break telecommunications reform no matter what we did," argues Neel, who was working in the White House at the time. "So when these guys told us not to introduce our own bill, to just try to push the process along from the bully pulpit, we'd have been crazy to ignore them."
Instead, the administration pursued the same brand of sanity that repeatedly led to disaster in its first two years. Here was a classic New Democratic issue, one crying out for the sort of "third-way" solution on which Clinton and Gore had campaigned. But rather than map out that course and forcefully propel Congress down it, the Clinton White House handed the wheel to the same directionless Congress folk who'd been trying to rewrite telecommunications law for a decade - and achieved precisely nothing.
Gore's performance, uninspired and uninspiring, is a failure that really sticks to him. He managed to emerge unscathed from the health-care debacle, and his reinventing government initiative was an unexpected success in the administration's rocky first two years. However, the telecom crack-up cost Gore his best chance to refashion economic policy. And during moments like the Networked Economy Conference, the bile he spews at Gingrich comes - at least in part - from his frustration at seeing his rival succeed where he so manifestly failed.
Equally injurious, Gore managed along the way to turn his highest-profile pure high-tech issue - e-privacy - into a fiasco. The disaster had two heads: the Digital Telephony bill and the Clipper Chip. Both were eavesdropping-enhancement meas-ures; Gore had weighed the competing privacy and law-enforcement interests and come down, in the view of his online constituents and civil libertarians, on the side of the forces of darkness. "That was when it became clear," argues John Perry Barlow, "that Gore's sympathies were more with the national-security state than with cyberspace."
Barlow, the Grateful Dead lyricist and EFF board member who had hitched a ride with Gore on Air Force Two after the Los Angeles speech and bragged about it for months afterwards, felt betrayed. "I had assumed that cultural affinity meant political affinity, and vice versa," Barlow says. "Now I know better. Al Gore is a Deadhead; he's also an authoritarian. He might be pained to hear me say that. But he believes the government can impose centralised solutions in a variety of areas, especially the virtual."
Even Gore's harshest Republican critics seldom go so far as to call him an authoritarian. But Barlow's bitterness arises out of a stark sense of disappointment, and disappointment frequently stings more than ideology inflames. Among Gore's erstwhile fans, the sting is hardly unique. "He came in with everything to play for," says Rotenberg, "and then he gave us Clipper and digital telephony. Which were catastrophes, no doubt. But the bigger problem was his general visionlessness. We heard Gore's rhetoric about the information highway during the campaign, and we thought we were getting another space programme. What we got instead was some little satellite launch."
Rotenberg sighs. "And then, of course, we got Newt."
On a muggy night in July, the Speaker of the House is sitting in his office, gazing into the enormous eye sockets of the T-Rex skull he has installed there, and eating a magnificent meal: well-turned filet steak, salad of fresh peach and brie, cabernet from Washington state. But for Gingrich, what's most delicious is the moment itself. A few days earlier, he had been cheered in cyberspace for coming out against Senator James Exon's censorious amendment to the Senate telecom bill; a few days later, he will marshal a triumph for the House version of telecom reform. And tonight, he will be dining with one of his heroes, Bill Gates, who is in the capital not for some conference, not to wrestle with the Justice Department, and certainly not to see Al Gore, but for the sole purpose of meeting Gingrich.
This is the first time they have met, and the assessments they offered each other were not so much fallacious as fellatious. According to several people at the table, including Donald Jones, a Wisconsin-based broadcast and cable-TV tycoon who arranged the supper, Gingrich hailed Gates as "the most important entrepreneur of his era, on a par with Henry Ford in his." Gates replied that Gingrich was making tremendous progress in Congress - that the place was on the right track for the first time in many years. "It was two colossal figures," says Jones, a part-time Gingrich adviser, "listening intensely, admiring one another's style, aware that - in their different ways - they're leading this revolution."
A year earlier, that kind of quote would have seemed baffling rather than just overblown. Gingrich had been brooding for two decades on the change wrought by chips and bits, but few people in the high-tech world even knew who he was. Indeed, when the Library of Congress hosted an /lite (and private) conference in July 1993 on "Delivering Electronic Information in a Knowledge-Based Democracy," the single politician that sponsors thought worthy of inviting was Gore. Only at the last minute, at the pleading of Jones, was Gingrich added to the bill.
But the collection of corporate big shots and senior scientists who took in Gingrich's speech that day - the last time he and Gore appeared on the same stage to talk high-tech - were greatly impressed. Clearly, a rivalry was afoot. "Here was this guy Gingrich, laying out this vision every bit as developed as Al's, and completely clued in to the socially transforming effects of technology," Larry Smarr remarks. "I'd never heard of him before, but at that moment I knew we'd all be hearing a lot more from Newt one day."
When that day came, Gingrich was prepared. Having spent 15 years struggling in the realm of conventional politics for the speakership, he now launched an equally calculated campaign in the realm of cyberpolitics. It was no accident that, with every TV camera in Washington in attendance, Gingrich spent his first full day as Speaker talking of almost nothing but computers: first unveiling a new system to put Congress online, then testifying before the House Ways and Means Committee that "maybe we need a tax credit for the poorest Americans to buy a laptop."
Gingrich was on a roll, and in the weeks that followed he gave speech after speech gushing about the Net, singing the praises of silicon, holding out the hope that "we can wire the world": speech after speech, that is, stealing Gore's thunder. Gingrich would never mention the vice president, but his pals were more than happy to. "Gore represents a centralised, industrial-age ideology," Jones contends. "We're Third Wave." George Keyworth, a former science adviser to Ronald Reagan (his nickname, says Keyworth, was Doctor SDI) and Gingrich guru, agrees: "Gore represents a mainframe mentality; Newt's mind-set is dominated by the PC. Which is another way of saying that Al's the past and Newt's the future."
Gingrich's aims are not merely personal. For him, knocking Gore off his virtual pedestal is only part of a broader project, one not unlike Gore's own in 1992: to shatter the ossified image of a Republican party whose other top figures are Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, and gadfly Pat Buchanan. A party whose appeal is based largely on nostalgia. A party whose platform, in effect, is to take America back to the '50s.
"My whole lifetime, conservatives have essentially been past-oriented, and liberals have done whatever they could to paint conservatives as reactionaries," says Jeff Eisenach, one of Gingrich's closest advisers. "Maybe the single most important aspect of Newt as a political leader of this new majority is that he has broken out of that box, and is seen as forward-looking, someone more concerned about the future than the past. And I think those things - Thomas, the Library of Congress' legislative information website, and the laptop tax-credit proposal - played an important role in people's understanding that he - and by extension the party - are driving for a new vision rather than embracing an old one."
Listening to Eisenach, it's hard not to feel slightly cynical. The "slight" grows to "very" as you discover that Gingrich is, in fact, something of a technological na[apple]f. He does not use e-mail, for example, a fact that shocked Gates's people and, apparently, Gates himself - the billionaire made a point of explaining the importance of e-mail to Gingrich at their dinner. The Speaker has owned a laptop only since 1994. When you ask him how much time he spends roaming the Net, he answers, "Not as much as I'd like." When you ask him what he does in those lamentably infrequent moments, he falls silent for at least five seconds - an eternity for him - and then responds, blankly, "I play."
To be fair, Gingrich freely admits he is "pretty primitive" when it comes to using computers. And, on some level, it hardly matters whether the Speaker is Net-savvy or not. His job is policy, not programming. But Gingrich's careful cultivation of his image (you won't hear him use the words "pretty primitive" in a speech any time soon) makes what Keyworth calls his "modest technological grasp" a reason for scepticism. Better reasons arise whenever Gingrich says something that suggests his grasp of high-tech policy is equally modest. His comment to Esther Dyson (US Wired 3.08), for example, that he is "fairly neutral" on the Clipper Chip.
"Newt's understanding of these issues is very broad and very thin," says one Gore ally. "He is bright and engaged, but he's pretty much a dilettante. And because he hangs around with the so-called futurist crowd, he comes out with these ridiculous things and the press puts them under the heading of dynamic vision, even though they're neither dynamic nor visionary."
To such critics, a group that includes more than a few right-leaning telecom-policy experts, Exhibit A in the ridiculous-things category was the laptop tax credit: a glib bit of off-the-cuffery which conveyed the whiff of Third Wave governance while conveniently failing to convey that it would amount, as journalist Michael Kinsley pointed out, to a "new $40 billion means-tested welfare benefit." The irony was not lost on Gore. "If I proposed that, I'd get clobbered," he told an aide the day Gingrich floated the idea. "I mean clobbered. They'd call me a socialist."
He would, too - which Gingrich thinks would be fair enough. "The laptop tax credit was an attempt to get people thinking about how we can democratise the information revolution, a goal that Al Gore and I share," he says. "But there's a real difference between whether an idea like that is offered by me or by the Democrats. I'm a hard-headed guy who understands free markets. They don't. They want to keep the existing bureaucracy in place and throw more and more money at it. I want to tear down that bureaucracy and try something new."
Put aside the self-aggrandisement and Gingrich has a point. It is different when an arch-conservative addresses a traditionally liberal concern with an ostensibly liberal prescription. Like Nixon going to China, or Reagan negotiating nuclear-arms reductions, it opens up new spaces in the public discourse, and hence new possibilities in the sphere of policy. And that, in essence, is what being a high-concept leader is all about.
Eisenach elaborates. "Newt's genius is his ability to spark a provocative dialog. People need to understand that not everything he says to provoke is something he intends to turn into legislation." Still, leadership is about doing as well as talking, and if you are the Speaker of the House, turning things into law (or stopping them, as the case may be) is your business. That does not mean you need to be chin deep in details. It does mean that, unless high-concept is all sound bites and symbolism, you need to get the big things right. And Gingrich has, twice."
The first was Thomas. For years, Republicans had resisted the notion of the government providing electronic access to Congressional records. In one fell swoop, Gingrich not only reversed that policy but added that citizens should be able to get ahold of everything - every bill, speech, committee report, everything - and that all of it should be free. In December 1994, he told Donald Jones to have a website ready by January. It was. Everything Gingrich promised is not yet online, but government-access crusaders (many of them are worse than liberals: they are consumer advocates) still feel something app-roaching worship for Thomas.
The second, of course, was his decision to oppose the Exon Amendment. A primitive attempt to cope with cyberporn through censorship, the amendment had sailed through the Senate in June with broad bipartisan support. But Gingrich was having none of it. Condemning Exon's handiwork as a violation of free speech, the Speaker took a position that was sure to offend many of his Christian-right supporters, and rallied Republicans to keep a similar provision out of the House bill.
"It was, I think, a pivotal moment for him," says Stewart Brand, co-founder of The Well and a board member of the EFF. "Despite his association with the Tofflers, and even despite Thomas, the online world was extremely wary of Gingrich, whom it saw - with the help of The New York Times - as this redneck right-winger. But Exon posed a clear and present danger, and Newt came down in the right place, at considerable cost - especially considering his constituencies. It was a show of courage. And it won him a lot of fans in every corner of the Internet."
Gore was also against the Exon Amendment. The trouble was, he never said so, at least not in public. In fact, throughout the first half of 1995, the vice president fell peculiarly silent on telecommunications in general, even as Republicans worked to enact their version of the bill Gore had failed to pass in 1994. "I could never figure it," says one senior administration official. "He practically invented the information highway, right? But now that the Republicans are trying to fuck it up, who has he let take the lead in criticising them? Reed Hundt. What a joke."
On the eve of Gingrich's telecoms triumph, Gore's silence broke. Calling the House measure "abhorrent to the public interest and to our national economic well-being," he made it clear that Clinton would veto it. The next day, August 4, the reform passed, by a thumping margin of 305 to 117.
Perhaps, until that moment, Gore had been hoping the Republicans would tone down their rewrite of the 1934 Act. Gingrich had, after all, praised the House telecom bill the year before as an example of productive bipartisanship. But that was then. Now a collision between the two men had become not just inevitable but intractable - it was a collision that could easily keep repeating itself well into the next century. For when Gore looked at the House telecom bill, he saw "a dangerous attempt to grab and display trophies for financial supporters." Gingrich, however, saw "a step forward, but still dramatically short of where we need to go."
Where we need to go: the sort of topic best explored under a big blue sky and over a few stiff drinks in a place like Aspen. So it was that a funky mix of cyberpoliticos and cyberpundits turned up in the Rockies late last summer for a conference on the topic of "Cyberspace and the American Dream." Barlow and Dyson were there; so were Brand and Toffler, plus Microsoft's Nathan Myhrvold, General Magic's Marc Porat, and Sun Microsystem's John Gage. The usual suspects, having the usual fun.
Except this confab was a little unusual. In the audience were a slew of suits from the Washington, DC, offices of most every big telephone, cable and computer firm, as well as a mob of reporters from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and C-Span. They turned out because the meeting was hosted by the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a think tank with what journalists describe politely as "close ties" to Ging-rich. Founded in 1993, the foundation's president is Eisenach, its chair Keyworth. So what better place than the foundation's cybersummit to draw a bead on Gingrich's thinking on telecom issues?
As it happens, there are several. Certainly the suits were disappointed with the Aspen conference, which was heavy on theory (or what some of them called "cyberbabble") and thin on constructive proposals; the telecom bills were barely mentioned. But sitting outside the main hall was a foundation white paper, "The Telecom Revolution - An American Opportunity." The suits could have picked up a copy back in DC, and if they had, they could have saved the airfare to Aspen. Here, in a 110-page document, is the most coherent statement available of state-of-the-art conservative thinking on communications policy.
At its heart is a doctrine of rapid, radical deregulation. It advocates tearing down the FCC and replacing it with a tiny office in the executive branch - a headline-grabbing proposal which, if all the rest of the report's recommendations came to pass, would not seem controversial. Cable-rate regulations? Gone. Cross-ownership restrictions between cable and broadcasting and between broadcasting and newspapers? Foreign-ownership restrictions? Gone, gone. Subject to antitrust review, phone companies could buy cable companies, even in their home regions. Spectrum would be privatised. Universal service would be replaced by a programme of smaller, targeted subsidies to the poor. Television regulations on children's programming would be history. And so on, and so forth.
Is the Progress and Freedom Foundation's manifesto Newt Gingrich's vision? "I helped inspire it," says the Speaker, "and from what I've read, it sounds like the general direction we should be heading." Warming to his subject, Gingrich continues. "Look, I think it's pretty clear we're at a point where we ought to just liberate the market and let the technologies sort themselves out over the next 10 or 15 years. Then, maybe, we revisit the question of whether you need regulation. In the near future, though, we should be driving for as little regulation as possible."
Gingrich's libertarianism is based on more than ideological conviction. It is based on the precedent of the computer industry, which Gingrich sees as the model for what will come next. More than any businesses since the dawn of the New Deal, hardware and software companies were allowed to develop free of federal regulation. Ask Gingrich how the government can best fuel investment in all things cyber, and he cites the money sloshing around in Silicon Valley, before concluding: "Get out of the way." Ask him whether deregulation will wind up costing the consumer, and he tells you about PC price wars. Mention monopolies and he gives you a lecture about IBM.
Gingrich did what he could to push the House telecom reform bill in this free-market direction. But although it ended up bolder than the Senate's tepid effort, ardent free-marketeers - including the Speaker - were disappointed. While the House bill would have lifted price regulation on expanded-basic cable services (CNN, MTV), it left caps in place on basic channels. While tearing down some media cross-ownership rules, it kept others - such as the one prohibiting broadcasters from owning cable systems in their home markets, which Gingrich tried to scrap. The FCC's responsibilities were increased, not reduced. Universal service and spectrum were untouched.
Even so, Gore was appalled. In the weeks after the bill was passed, and as the House and Senate prepared to meld their competing versions into a single law, the vice president laid out his case in passionate terms. He objected to relaxing cross-ownership restrictions; to letting the Baby Bells into the long-distance market before there is competition in the local loop; to rolling back the cable-rate regulations he helped pass in the draconian 1992 Cable Act. Beneath all these objections was the same fear: that the House bill "promotes mergers and concentration of power ... allowing fewer people to control greater numbers of TV, radio, and newspaper outlets in every community."
"The question is simple," says Greg Simon, Gore's top domestic policy advisor. "Are we going to recreate the 1890s - and the excesses of the robber barons and the oil barons - by invoking this mantra of deregulation to liberate these monopolists, who treat consumers as captive sources of funds? Deregulation means nothing unless, within the industry you're deregulating, people have a chance to compete." As for the Progress and Freedom Foundation's proposals, Simon is of the opinion that, "In a completely deregulated environment, no one in business to make money would do anything in the public interest. Abolishing the FCC would represent the triumph of fashion over history. If you think that bartering monopolies is going to produce a fair allocation of the public airwaves, you've got another think coming."
Views like these are easy to parody, easier still to distort. And when Gingrich and his loyalists harp on about Gore's "Second Wave" language, that's precisely what they're doing. "The term information superhighway tells you everything you need to know about Gore," the Speaker insists. "It suggests offramps and onramps, and bureaucratic oversight, and a role for the government in construction." Eisenach adds, "The interstate highway system was a huge, government-controlled project, which was perfect for the 1950s. But the idea of the federal government in any way controlling cyberspace is completely ludicrous."
Unfortunately, Gore has never suggested that government should control cyberspace. He has suggested that government should support the backbone of the Net, but has always (at least when pressed) made clear that the infobahn would be built by the private sector. His superhighway imagery was meant to convey another concept altogether: that, just as the concrete highway system had linked the nation and spurred its unprecedented economic growth in the post-World War II years, so would the infobahn be socially binding and economically essential in the information age. Not a perfect metaphor; not a sinister one, either.
But if Gore's vision is far from the Rooseveltian, it is equally remote from the Newtonian. Like Gingrich, Gore sees the computer industry as a marvel. But if the goal is to replicate its fierce competitiveness and innovation in the vast, emerging information marketplace, then Gore believes that simply tearing down regulations is not enough. He worries that giant, entrenched monopolies will roll over smaller rivals. He suspects that consumers will be gouged along the way. And he frets that the worst off will be left out.
So, Gore clings to the idea that government can prevent his fears from coming true. From the earliest days of the NII, he has argued that the federal approach should be to deregulate as quickly as possible, but only if and when it serves a handful of core goals: to encourage private investment; to make certain that there is, as Gore puts it, "not the illusion of competition, not the distant prospect of competition, but real competition" in the bit business; to ensure open access; to deal with the dilemma of information haves and have-nots.
What is most fascinating about Gore's goals - private investment, competition, open access, preventing the emergence of an information aristocracy - is that Gingrich shares, or says he shares, every one of them. What they are arguing about, both allow, is not the shape of things to come, but about the right way to get there. The outcome of that argument will have serious consequences for a collection of industries with US$250 billion (£159 billion) a year in revenues, not to mention for the rest of us. Both men know that the models they are putting forward aren't perfect. But neither is willing to give an inch in the other's direction. And to see how many miles now separate them, consider Gingrich's new position on a subject he and Gore both profess to care deeply about: wiring the poor.
"He thinks the laptop tax-credit idea is hypocritical? OK, here's the deal I'll make with him," the Speaker says. "If the White House says tomorrow that it will eliminate 20 per cent of the education bureaucrats and spend the money on laptops, I'll sponsor the bill and do everything I can to pass it. Until then, we have nothing to talk about."
Aout two millennia ago, just after BC flipped to AD, the Greek philosopher Plutarch left Athens for Rome, where he became a renowned teacher of ethics, as well as something of a journalist. His best-known writing, in fact, was a series of 46 dual-biographies, each comparing a Greek statesman with a Roman one. Known as Plutarch's "Parallel Lives," the sketches play on the conceit that great men come in pairs - Alexander and Julius Caesar, Pyrrhus and Gaius Marius - pairs who, despite their different cultures, are twinned by common causes and concerns.
Plutarch would, no doubt, have had a field day with America's two most blatantly millennial politicians: Gingrich and Gore, the Fabius and Pericles of this postmodern moment. Not so long ago, there were as many important views and qualities that they shared as that divided them - not least the ability, as Plutarch discovered of his subjects, "to endure the follies of their peoples and of their colleagues in office." But since November 1994, every subject, from the trivial ("Make sure you say Newt's the Greek," urges one of his aides) to the momentous, has become for Gore and Gingrich a bone of contention.
Politics breeds rivalries, and high politics breeds polarisation. As Gingrich and Gore have emerged as leaders of their parties, their visions of government in the information age - once so similar that their voting records on high-tech issues are virtually indistinguishable - have careered off in stridently divergent directions. The mantle of leadership is itself a big part of the reason.
"They're now captive of traditional Democratic and Republican interests in a way they weren't before," suggests Toffler. "For Newt it's big business; for Al it's the bureaucracy."
And for both, it is reason to exaggerate their differences rather than find common ground, and to espouse views they know are absurd. A laptop tax-credit for the poor is a silly proposal (the poor do not pay taxes), and so is the idea of adopting the economically nonsensical universal-service scheme for telephony (it subsidises rich farmers at the expense of destitute inner-city families) and applying it to broadband services. Gingrich and Gore are fully aware of both points, but to admit this would be a sign of weakness. So the absurdities continue.
By the time this article appears, one side or the other will have won over the telecom bill. It will either be law or his-tory. Yet for all the huffing and puffing, even if the bill does hit the statute books, change will result only at the margins. Gingrich's people say so openly; Gore's whisper it privately.
Each camp knows that the battle that counts is the next one, for it's the battle that could usher in a revolution in high-tech policy to match the scope of the revolution in high-tech.
Whether that revolution takes place may depend on another revolution - the one at the ballot box. If the Republicans win the presidency in 1996 and increase their majorities in Congress, they will be in a position to reconfigure government as sweepingly as Franklin Roosevelt did with the New Deal. Roosevelt then built the industrial, bureaucratic state. Tomorrow, the Republicans could tear that state down and erect in its place Gingrich's model of a Third-Wave anti-state: deregulated, devolutionary and libertarian.
But don't bet on it, at least not where telecom is concerned. Radical deregulation may sound sexy, but if the truth be told, what businesses actually want is selective deregulation, the kind that gives them new freedoms but protects their franchises from foul interlopers. Under pressure from his party's core constituents, Gingrich might easily lose the courage of his high-concept pronouncements; his fellow conservatives might well cave even if he doesn't. Or the great Republican realignment might simply fail to materialise. In any of these scenarios, the Gingrich-Gore contest is destined to continue - indeed, to intensify. Whether Clinton wins or loses next November, Gore will almost certainly seek the presidency in 2000 or 2004. And whether or not Gingrich decides to make a run for the White House this time around, his desire to wind up there is palpable.
This shared ambition has long amused their fans. "Heidi and I have always joked that we wanted a Gore-Gingrich ticket, or a Gingrich-Gore ticket, either way," Toffler says. "But today we just wish we could force the two of them to sit downin the same room and not let them leave until they have written down five things they agree on."
What's sad about politics - and what makes it extremely unlikely that the government will get its act together on telecommunications and computing any time soon - is that the second of Toffler's fantasies is now nearly as unimaginable as the first.
John Heilemann is American domestic affairs correspondent for The Economist.