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Were Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich close?

at 02:24 PM ET, 01/30/2012

Former House speaker Newt Gingrich was either a key lieutenant of President Ronald Reagan or a backbench congressman throwing rhetorical bombs at the president of his own party.

Which one is closer to the real Gingrich-Reagan relationship depends almost entirely on who you’re asking.
In this April 21, 1988 file photo, President Ronald Reagan speaks in Springfield, Mass. (Ron Edmonds - AP)

Former First Lady Nancy Reagan herself said: “Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt and the Republican Members of Congress to keep that dream alive.”

When Gingrich quoted her, he conveniently left out the second half of the quote. It’s that kind of exaggeration that has left Gingrich open to attack regarding just how close he really was to Reagan.

And, that picture is further muddled by the fact that Romney and Gingrich have been trotting out former Reagan administration with competing histories.

Supporters of the former Massachusetts governor argue that Gingrich was notable mostly for his criticism of Reagan, not his support.

Here’s a sampling of that viewpoint:

Elliot Abrams, assistant Secretary of State from 1981 to 1989:

Mr. Gingrich voted with the president regularly, but equally often spewed insulting rhetoric at Reagan, his top aides, and his policies to defeat Communism. Gingrich was voluble and certain in predicting that Reagan’s policies would fail, and in all of this he was dead wrong.

Richard Williamson, former U.N. ambassador:

“He was a backbencher. [...] Yes, he voted, as the Republicans in the House overwhelmingly did, but it would be inaccurate to claim that he was a major player and frankly, inaccurate to claim that he was a consistent supporter. And that was my experience and I think it was my colleagues now.”

Supporters of the former House speaker say Gingrich was a vital Reagan ally.

Craig Shirley, activist, Gingrich supporter and author of several books about Reagan:

“In fact, from 1974 up to today, Gingrich was always a Reagan man. [...] In 1981, Gingrich was asked to lead a task force to get Reagan’s tax cuts passed in the congress. In 1984, Gingrich was asked to be a member of the Platform Committee at the national convention in Dallas in part, to protect Reagan’s interests there.”

Bud McFarlane, Reagan’s national security advisor from 1983 to 1985:

“Speaker Gingrich was a real influence in shaping the adoption of supply-side economics that enabled us to turn around the economy ... and that in turn enabled us to ... ultimately put such a burden on the Soviet economy as to bring it down, end the Cold War, reduce nuclear weapons. This was truly a process, a strategy that Speaker Gingrich as a young congressman was very influential.”

Who’s right?

It’s undeniable that Gingrich frequently criticized Reagan, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t helpful in pushing for some of the president’s policies.

But, according to Lou Cannon, a former Washington Post reporter who covered the Reagan presidency and is the Gipper’s biographer, Newt was not particularly close to Reagan.

“Gingrich had absolutely nothing to do with the Reagan Revolution,” Cannon told Bloomberg News. “There were congressmen who influenced Reagan, especially Jack Kemp ... I’m not sure Reagan even knew who Gingrich was.”

Reagan did, at one point, know who Gingrich was; he was mentioned in his diaries, but only once (and in a negative light).

“Reagan was aware of him,” according to Annelise Anderson, the deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under Reagan. “Newt Gingrich was a creative and thoughtful young backbencher.”

Given how frequently Gingrich has cited his work with Reagan, that might be damning with faint praise.

 
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