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Newt Gingrich’s Pinocchio-laden debut

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Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

“The reason that I came here tonight to announce that I am a candidate for president of the United States is because I think if you apply the right principles to achieve the right results, that we can win the future together.”

--Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), May 11, 2011

Newton Leroy “Newt” Gingrich is back!

 The former House speaker threw his hat in the presidential ring Wednesday with an appearance on Fox’s “Sean Hannity Show.” It promises to be an interesting trip.

 The Fact Checker covered Gingrich during his speakership, which lasted a tumultuous four years in the late 1990s, and by turns found him to be fascinating and frustrating.  Gingrich speaks with such conviction and certainty, but every assertion he made needed to be checked and rechecked.  Sometimes you couldn’t quite be sure if he was just making it up on the spot.

 Take his appearance on Hannity’s show, for instance. In speaking about how the “elite media” never give conservative politicians a break, Gingrich related the following anecdote about Ronald Reagan’s acting career: “Ronald Reagan didn't get up every morning and say, gee, I wish they like me. Ronald Reagan had been a movie actor. Only had one movie, ‘King's Row,’ get a good review from the New York Times. Only one. But he had a pretty good career because it turned out that middle class, Middle America liked his movies.”

 That’s a great story, based on such a specific fact. But, as you will see below, it turns out to be completely untrue. The New York Times panned “King’s Row”—but liked other Ronald Reagan movies.

 There were so many such gems in Gingrich’s appearance that we will pick out the choice comments that cry out for fact-checking. We reached out to two of his spokesmen with questions and requests for documentation, but did not get a response. (A failure to respond to fact-checking queries is a sign of a presidential campaign still getting its act together.)

 

“To balance the budget as we did for four years when I was speaker, to reform entitlements, as we did with welfare, when I was speaker, and that's a great future…. It took us three years [to balance the budget]. We then balanced it for four consecutive years. We paid off $405 billion in debt. Nobody thought we could do it when it started. We did it.”

 

Listening to Gingrich, you would be forgiven for forgetting there was a president (Bill Clinton) in office at the time the nation starting running a budget surplus.

 Gingrich is right to assert that he and the Republican Congress prodded Clinton to move to the right and embrace such conservative notions as a balanced budget and welfare reform. (Clinton vetoed two versions of welfare reform before signing the bill, prompting some key staff members to resign in protest.)

 But the budget was balanced in part because of a gusher of tax revenues from Clinton’s 1993 deficit reduction package, which raised taxes on the wealthy and which Gingrich vehemently opposed. The budget was also balanced because the Democratic White House and Republican Congress were in absolute legislative stalemate, so neither side could implement grand plans to increase spending or cut taxes. (Look what happened with tax cuts—and the surplus—when a Republican president followed Clinton.)

 Gingrich is wrong to claim there were four years of balanced budgets when he was speaker. He left in January 1999; the budget ran a surplus in the fiscal years of 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. So he can at best claim two years.

 As for reducing the debt by $405 billion, our math from looking at the White House historical tables shows that the publicly-held debt fell $450 billion during the surplus years. (Look on page 134) But much of this was when Gingrich was no longer speaker. Even during the surplus years, however, the gross debt (including bonds issued to Social Security and Medicare) rose by $400 billion. Gross debt is the figure that conservative tend to use.

 During Gingrich’s time as speaker, the public debt was essentially flat and the gross debt rose $700 billion.

 

“The American people by 79 to 16 believe we want American energy. He [Obama] thinks we want Brazilian energy.”

 

We don’t know what poll Gingrich is citing, but it’s a suspicious number. (Who would be against “American energy”?) There have been some polls showing Americans still favor offshore drilling, even in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon spill, with 79 percent of Louisiana residents remain in favor of drilling.

 Meanwhile, Gingrich has advocated dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency, but polls show strong opposition to that idea. A recent poll found that, by a margin of 77 to 18, Americans believe Congress would let the EPA do its job.

 The dig at Obama refers to a comment the president made earlier this year while in Brazil: “We want to help with technology and support to develop these oil reserves safely, and when you’re ready to start selling, we want to be one of your best customers.”

  Obama’s remarks drew criticism from Republicans, who have also railed against a proposed $2 billion loan from the U.S. Export-Import Bank to Brazilian oil company Petrobras. The issue is too complicated to delve into detail in this column but Forbes has done a good job debunking a number of claims about this deal.

 

“Reagan had been a movie actor. Only had one movie, ‘King's Row’, get a good review from the New York Times. Only one.”

 

Thanks to the fact the New York Times has posted many of the old Bosley Crowther reviews on the Internet, this is easily debunked.

 We checked 10 of Reagan’s best-known movies. As mentioned, “King’s Row” (1942) was panned by The Times, as were “Working Her Way Through College” (1952), “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957), “The Killers” (1964) and “Storm Warning” (1951). 

Bedtime for Bonzo” (1951) got a lukewarm review.

 But these movies got positive notices, even raves: “Knute Rockne: All American” (1940), “Hasty Heart” (1949), “The Winning Team” (1952), and “Brother Rat” (1938).

One wonders how and why Gingrich came to believe this fairy tale. Too good to check?

 

 “I've had time to look and see what has happened in the executive branch, which I spent over six years with President Bush and his team.”

 

This is an example of resume-polishing. The casual listener might think Gingrich had actually been part of the executive branch during the Bush administration. That’s not the case.

He was an informal adviser to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, and his name turns up in some of the papers Rumsfeld has posted on the web. “One other individual who might be helpful is the Honorable Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, who has been working with me on transformation,” Rumsfeld wrote to an aide.

 Meanwhile, when Gingrich was thinking of running for president in 2008, he turned highly critical of the Bush administration.

 

  “We then did something that has never been studied but was actually amazing. In 1996, we were told that Medicare would go broke in very a short time. I personally chaired the Medicare task force. Brought together the Ways and Means Committee, the Energy and Commerce Committee and did it with AARP and not fighting us, with a liberal Democrat in the White House running for reelection. And we passed a major reform of Medicare with the president signing it.”

 

Gingrich appears to be mixing up two stories here. The Balanced Budget Act in 1997 did indeed include some Medicare savings, though it might be a stretch to call it “major Medicare reform.” In fact, when budget revenues unexpectedly went up, Congress in 1999 actually pared back some of the cuts after complaints from providers.

 But Gingrich may be adding in details from another, secret effort to reform Medicare that fell apart after the Monica Lewinsky scandal erupted and Clinton was impeached. This is how it is described in Steven Gillon’s “The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry That Defined a Generation.” (2008):

 

The plan was for Clinton to make his bold initiative for reforming Social Security and Medicare the centerpiece of his State of the Union address in January 1998. Gingrich would follow the president's speech by making positive comments about the initiative. He would then ask Archer's Ways and Means Committee to make specific recommendations. Both sides would try to keep the issue off the table in the 1998 congressional elections, before pushing it through a lame-duck Congress in December. The president asked the American Association of Retired Persons and the Concord Coalition, an influential lobbying group that advocated fiscal discipline, to organize four regional forums to discuss the issue. The national ''dialogue'' would conclude with a White House conference on Social Security in December 1998—the same time that Congress would be voting on a reform proposal.

Sounds kind of similar, doesn’t it? 

 

 

Attorney General “Eric Holder should never have been approved by the U.S. Senate. He volunteered to write papers for terrorists. He volunteered to try to help terrorists get out of jail. His record out of office, between the Clinton years and today, was such that it should have disqualified him from serving as attorney general.”

 

Gingrich has waged a jihad against Holder for some time, repeatedly calling for his firing. We are not quite sure what Gingrich is talking about but in the first instance—“volunteered to write papers”--we think he is referring to a legal argument that Holder supported in the case of Jose Padilla, a U.S. citizen who was accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack.

 The Bush administration designated Padilla as an “enemy combatant” and held him in a military prison, but he demanded to be charged in federal court because he was a U.S. citizen. Holder did not write the brief, which was filed in 2004 by lawyers at Arnold & Porter, but he added his name in support of it, along with former Attorney General Janet Reno and other prominent lawyers.

 In Gingrich’s wording, he makes Holder’s actions appear nefarious. But in the end the Bush administration abandoned its argument and charged Padilla in federal court. He was convicted in 2008. On the right, however, the case still rankles.

 We are also puzzling over the assertion that Holder “volunteered to try to help get terrorists out of jail.” Holder’s former law firm, Covington & Burling, represented 17 Yemenis held at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, and some have speculated that as a senior partner Holder would have say in the types of pro bono cases the firm handled. But he does not appear to have been personally involved in those cases.

 As an attorney, Holder also represented Chiquita Brands in a case in which it admitted paying illegal militias (one of which was designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization) to defend its plantations between 1987 and 1999.

 We would welcome clarification from Gingrich about what he is talking about, but based on available evidence, he is grossly twisting the facts about Holder’s actions in private practice.

 

The Pinocchio Test

This is quite a collection of misstatements, bloopers and exaggerations. Some are admittedly small-fry, but others are serious, such as the claims about Holder. We would say this is an inauspicious debut, worthy of our maximum award.

Welcome back in the game, Mr. Speaker.

Four Pinocchios

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Newt Gingrich interview with Sean Hannity - Part 1:

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Newt Gingrich interview with Sean Hannity - Part 2:

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