Gingrich sets up battlelines of the future US political leaders enter Age of Aquarius

GIVEN that they are his close friends, Alvin and Heidi Toffler, are remarkably frank about Newt Gingrich. They admit that the Republican leader tends "to shoot his mouth off". They even think some of his political beliefs are fundamentally wrong.

Yet the couple, whose futurist books have sold millions of copies around the world, are about as willing to entertain doubts about his intellectual credentials as they are to predict a mass return to the ox and cart.

They make it perfectly clear: those cynics who believe that the supposed new Messiah of the American right is nothing more than a disguised Reaganite, spouting lame old conservative policies under the guise of New Age cyber-babble, are wrong.

"Newt has a deep intellect that's underrated," says the 66-year-old Mr Toffler. "Unlike everyone else, he can think 30 or 40 years ahead." His wife goes one step further: the southern history professor is not only the best "futurist politician" in the US; he is the only one.

The relationship between the Tofflers and Newt Gingrich is one of the more unlikely unions of politics and philosophy. It has lasted 20 years, almost dating back to the publication of their Future Shock, the visionary study that became a classic among hip, young intellectuals of the Led Zep generation.

The friendship has been under particular scrutiny since Gingrich's ascent as Speaker of the House in the first Republican-controlled Congress since Eisenhower, a job which he assumed on Wednesday, immediately driving through a series of internal reforms to Congress, including slashing more than 600 staff and three committees. As he brandished his "Contract With America" in the weeks beforehand, he repeatedly urged the world to read the Tofflers' works.

On the face of it, this seems odd. The Tofflers are not Republicans, but "independents" who, if anything, lean leftwards. The couple met as student radicals in 1948, around the same time as Alvin was busy registering black voters in the South. Gingrich is a southern Baptist; they are secular and pro-choice.

Recently, Gingrich and Heidi Toffler, who is 65, have been arguing fiercely over his advocacy of prayer in American schools. He sent her a four-page, hand-written letter in which she says he "completely ignored" her arguments about the separation of church and state. "He offered it as fact, fact, fact," she said, from her home in Los Angeles. "But there wasn't a single fact in it."

Yet they share a common view: an intense interest in the structures which will control the next century. The Tofflers believe the history of man comprises three waves. The first began 10,000 years ago when man invented agriculture.

The second was the Industrial Revolution, which brought mass production, mass media, weapons of mass destruction, mass education and so on. And the third wave is the dawning information age, the cyber-revolution and "demassification" - telecommuting, home-based education, regionalised politics, precision nuclear weapons.

The authors maintain both the Republicans and the Democrats are still stagnating disastrously in the second wave, the blue-collar era of massive "smoke-stack" manufacturers. But the Democrats, with their power base among the old industries of the US North-east, are particularly trapped by their own die-hard, often unionised, constituents.

Although many of his policies (increased defence spending, swifter executions) are clearly Old Hat Republican, Gingrich has already established his Third Wave credentials.

A small indication of this are his moves to put the US Congress on-line, with laws that require all public House documents to be filed electronically on the day of their release. His broader view rings of pure Toffler: "If we're really serious about distance medicine and distance learning and distance work, we could revolutionise the quality of life in rural America and create the greatest explosion of new opportunity for rural America in history."

Gingrich is not alone in his bid to look further afield for inspiration rather than rely solely on the battered army of Washington policy gurus, political consultants, publicity executives, and friendly journalists. The American electorate's erratic switch of allegiances, and the general air of voter frustration, has spawned a search for fresh ideas. Just look at President Clinton: still smarting from a humiliating defeat in the mid-term elections, he recently spent a day with two of the trendiest "personal development" gurus in America, Anthony Robbins and Stephen Covey.

"It's as if the Age of Aquarius has acquired a dubious toehold in the minds of American officials," said Kevin Phillips, a conservative political analyst.

"They are like medieval monarchs who constantly had astrologers at their side. They are clearly looking for quick fixes, which I don't see as a good sign."

Covey, a former Mormon missionary from Utah who became an expert in business management, is the author of the best-selling Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. These include such helpful tips as "begin with the end in mind" and "put first things first", advice which few dispute that Clinton, a notorious ditherer, desperately needs.

Chief executives, international corporations, and schools have turned to Covey (who is also a Gingrich favourite). Last year his activities reportedly generated $70m (£45m).

Robbins, a 6ft 7in lantern-jawed Californian, is a more unusual choice. He has no college degree or specialised training, and little previous professional experience beyond that of a door-to-door salesman and janitor. Yet, at the age of 34, he has amassed an estimated $80m fortune, owns a castle in southern California and a base in Fiji, and advises some of the world's biggest celebrities. Those who have sought his help include the Princess of Wales and Andre Agassi, who he claims to have helped become the first unseeded tennis player ever to win the US Open. His success has been built around his vast output of video tapes, TV shows, seminars, and books persuading people to pursue "constant and never-ending improvement", an ideal which, like any half-smart guru, he boils down to an easily memorised acronym: "CANI".

This fits neatly on to the licence plate of his dark blue BMW, one of a fleet of luxury cars which he uses when he decides against travelling in his jet-powered helicopter.

Precisely what the President sought to find out from Robbins, whom he met at Camp David, is unclear. The guru's spokeswoman refused to comment on the meeting, and the White House would only confirm the fact that it had happened. But Clinton seems more likely to have been interested in Robbins' charismatic and almost evangelical communications skills - the Californian's fans say he can mesmerise gatherings for hours on end - than in his motivational tips. After all, Clinton has always been known as a hard and determined worker.

Sadly, it remains unknown if Mr Clinton repeated the behaviour of some of the Robbins audiences (including many of those in Britain) who have ended up dancing in the aisles shouting "Bangstab" and "Yowie", cries which the guru uses to advance the processknown as "self-actualisation".

Nor do we know if Robbins performed his greatest trick: teaching his students to across red-hot coals. If he did, the President should be grateful. Clinton will need as many stunts as possible if he is to steal the thunder back from his futurist

rival from the South.