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Newt Gingrich: historian? (Fact Checker biography)

at 06:02 AM ET, 12/15/2011


(Brian Snyder / Reuters)

“My advice as a historian, when they walked in and said to me, ‘We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that's what the government wants us to do,’ as I said to them at the time: ‘This is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible.’”

-- Newt Gingrich, defending his contract with Freddie Mac during a CNBC debate in Michigan, Nov. 9, 2011

“There's a whole issue about whether or not government-sponsored enterprises have any legitimacy. Well, I can tell you as a historian they have been used in a variety of ways over all of American history. There are times they've been very, very useful and very valuable.

And so part of the question was, ‘Can you make that case? Can you put in context the history of these institutions?’”

-- Gingrich, again defending his contract with Freddie Mac during an interview on Fox News, Nov. 17, 2011

“I didn't speak for the people of Israel. I spoke as a historian who has looked at the world stage for a very long time. I've known [Israeli Prime Minister] Bibi [Netanyahu] since 1984. I feel quite confident an amazing number of Israelis found it nice to have an American tell the truth about the war they are in the middle of and the casualties they're taking and the people who surround them who say, ‘You do not have the right to exist, and we want to destroy you.’”

-- Gingrich, defending remarks he made during an Iowa debate on Dec. 10, 2011, suggesting that Palestinians had based their “right of return” on an historically false story.

That’s at least three times that Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has referred to himself as a historian during the 2012 election cycle. He’s gone a step further at times, suggesting that his knowledge of the subject gives him superior qualifications for policy -- and decision-making.

 “What it does is, it gives you a really rich background to go to, to analyze things, to think about things, to put in context what you would do in a way that if you don’t know history, you can’t possibly reinvent it,” he told Iowa Public Radio this year.

So how did the GOP front-runner develop his supposed acumen? We analyzed his résumé and his life in academia to find out just how much experience the former House speaker draws from, and whether he has any credibility as a self-proclaimed authority.

THE FACTS

 Gingrich spent the great majority of his professional life in politics, serving as a member of Congress for 20 years. He devoted just eight fulltime years to academia and history -- 18 if you include his time as a student. 

After leaving the House, Gingrich worked on the fringes of politics, providing consulting services -- or quasi-lobbying efforts, depending on what you believe -- for special interests. He also founded a number of for-profit groups, including communications companies and the Center for Health Transformation, a policy think tank.

 As for history, Gingrich specialized in that subject throughout his academic life. He received a B.A. from Emory University in 1965; he earned a M.A. in 1967 and a Ph.D. in 1971 from Tulane University, with a doctoral focus on modern European history.

 In 1970, Gingrich joined the faculty of West Georgia College, now the University of West Georgia, as an assistant professor of history.

 Gingrich wrote his doctoral thesis on "Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945–1960.” The work, to a large extent, analyzed colonialism in the Central African nation.

 New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd noted recently that the dissertation reveals apparent contradictions in Gingrich’s thinking: He defended certain aspects of African colonialism, but disparaged the practice when it came to Britain’s long-ago occupation of America.

Left-leaning author Adam Hochschild also chimed in on Gingrich’s doctoral thesis in the New York Times, saying that the work showed a lack of academic rigor, especially since it offered little perspective from the Congolese -- he never interviewed any of them.

 Hochschild did give a nod to Gingrich for being “clear-eyed about colonialism,” noting that the dissertation recognized the practice as commercially motivated.

 Professor Gingrich moved to West Georgia’s geography department in 1974, helping to establish an interdisciplinary environmental studies program. (He joined then-House speaker Nancy Pelosi in a 2008 commercial urging action on combating global climate change.)

 But early in his career, Gingrich suggested he was ready to abandon academia for politics. He made his first run for public office -- a bid for Congress -- four years after joining the faculty at West Georgia. He lost by a narrow margin to 20-year Democratic incumbent Jack Flynt.

 Gingrich wasn’t done there. He ran again the first chance he could, losing again to Flynt by a wider margin in 1976. West Georgia denied him tenure, and he left the school after winning a seat in Congress in 1978.

 Gingrich has written prolifically, but never so much as when he became an established Beltway politician. He has written or co-written 17 works of nonfiction -- mainly conservative policy books -- and eight novels of the “alternate history” genre. But he hasn’t worked in the field of history in about 33 years, and he never published a scholarly or peer-reviewed book to the best of our knowledge.

 The Gingrich campaign did not respond to requests for information about the candidate’s background in history.

 As for his time with Freddie Mac, Gingrich has changed his story a bit. First he claimed to have worked as a “historian,” explaining how private-public partnerships had thrived throughout the course of American history. He later said he had served as a consultant helping the firm understand how to appeal to conservatives and warning that the company’s lending practices were unsustainable.

 “I think less than maybe once a month, they would drop by,” Gingrich told Fox News talk-show host Greta Van Susteren. “We'd spend an hour. It would always start with me listening. I'd always say: What are you trying to solve, what are your concerns, what are you trying to get done?”

 

 THE PINOCCHIO TEST

Gingrich no doubt loves history. And the candidate did indeed teach the subject briefly as a professor, which would have qualified him as a historian at the time -- although he never published a scholarly work of note or earned tenure. He also wrote a number of alternate-history books based mostly on his own creative thoughts rather than real past events.

 None of that experience qualifies the candidate to speak as an authority on the subject of Israel-Palestine relations, nor does it make him an expert on quasi-government enterprises, as he has suggested on the 2012 campaign trail.

 Overall, Gingrich earns three Pinocchios for repeated suggestions that his limited background in history gives him broad authority to speak on the subject.

THREE PINOCCHIOS

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    About the Blogger

    Glenn Kessler has covered foreign policy, economic policy, the White House, Congress, politics, airline safety and Wall Street.

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