Five myths about Newt Gingrich
By John J. Pitney Jr.,
by John J. Pitney Jr. Just a few months after his campaign seemed to implode amid staff resignations, Newt Gingrich sits atop the GOP presidential polls. Yet 13 years have passed since Gingrich stepped down as House speaker — plenty of time for older voters to forget him, and for younger voters to not know him at all. So let’s dispel recurring myths about the new frontrunner’s politics, history and ambitions. John J. Pitney Jr. chatted with readers about this piece Wednesday.
1.Gingrich is an academic.
He earned a PhD in history and taught college before winning a seat in Congress. He has often spoken of himself as a historian. In 1995, he told CNN’s Bob Franken: “I am the most seriously professorial politician since Woodrow Wilson.”
But whereas Wilson spent years publishing scholarly works, Gingrich was more like the professor who wins popularity awards from undergraduates but doesn’t get tenure because he doesn’t publish anything significant. He even told a college newspaper in 1977 that “I made the decision two or three years ago that I’d rather run for Congress than publish the papers or academic books necessary to get promoted.”
Since then, he has given countless lectures and written more than 20 books, but has never produced truly serious scholarship. A typical Gingrich work is full of aphorisms and historical references — and devoid of the hallmarks of academic research: rigor, nuance and consideration of alternative views. Conservative political scientist James Q. Wilson once assessed materials for a televised history course that Gingrich was teaching as a “mishmash of undefined terms . . . misleading claims . . . and unclear distinctions.”
Yet Gingrich has been quick to cite his credentials as a source of authority. In a letter to Reagan budget director David Stockman, he once wrote: “From my perspective as a historian, you don’t deal in the objective requirements of history.” And recently, he suggested that mortgage giant Freddie Mac had paid him for his historical expertise, not his Capitol Hill connections.
2.Gingrich is a hard-core conservative.
Not really. Starting in the 1990s,he backed a health insurance mandate. Three years ago, he appeared in a television ad with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to promote action against global warming. He has since told conservatives that these deviations were mistakes, but they are of a piece with his record.
Gingrich has never been a strict right-winger, in his positions or his allies. In a 1989 interview with the Ripon Forum, a magazine for moderate Republicans, he said: “I would not be House Republican whip if activists in the moderate wing had not supported me. . . . There is almost a new synthesis evolving with the classic moderate wing of the party, where . . . I’ve spent most of my life, and the conservative/activist right wing.”
Some of his heresies, such as his occasional support for green initiatives, have been matters of principle. Others have been more practical. In his first book, “Window of Opportunity,” he wrote that “there are times and places when specific protectionist steps are appropriate.” Such comments, which clashed with the GOP belief in free trade, reflected local concerns. As he explained to The Washington Post after Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) tweaked him for his protectionism: “I represent two auto plants. I always ask him, ‘Bob, what’s your position on wheat?’ ”
3.Gingrich was a Reaganite.
In the years since President Ronald Reagan’s death, Republicans have embraced a broader myth that they all locked arms with the Gipper and strode from victory to victory. Gingrich has not fallen short on this score, even publishing a photo book titled “Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous With Destiny” and recently describing himself to CNN as an unconventional political figure, “much like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.”
In fact, many Republicans bemoaned their frustrations with Reagan during his administration, and Gingrich was part of that story. He broke with Reagan on the president’s 1982 tax increase, accusing him of “trying to score a touchdown for liberalism, for the liberal welfare state.” In late 1985, he worked to stall a tax reform bill that Reagan supported and that eventually passed.
Sometimes, Gingrich fired from the left, faulting the administration on such issues as South African apartheid. In his Ripon Forum interview, he said, “One of the gravest mistakes the Reagan administration made was its failure to lead aggressively in civil rights.” He compared Reagan unfavorably with George H.W. Bush, who “is seen as a post-Reagan president by African-Americans, who feel he and Barbara are truly committed to their well-being.”
If asked, Gingrich would probably say that he was dispensing some tough love. Perhaps Reagan had a different view of the matter.
4.Gingrich single-handedly brought hyper-partisanship to Capitol Hill.
During the 1980s and ’90s, Gingrich often employed tough tactics and harsh words that heightened partisan tensions — but he was not the only culprit.
He criticized Reagan for his mild 1984 reelection campaign, saying that he should have run “by forcing a polarization of the country. He should have been running against liberals and radicals.”
But there was plenty of roughness on the other side, too. “The evil is in the White House at the present time,” House Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) said of Reagan. “He’s cold. He’s mean. He’s got ice water for blood.” And when House Majority Leader Jim Wright (D-Tex.) went to the House floor to dispute Reagan’s account of private deficit meetings, he used the word “lie” eight times.
Gingrich’s tenure as speaker was bipolar. Even as he led the House during government shutdowns and the impeachment of President Bill Clinton, he worked with Democrats to secure welfare reform and balanced budgets. And before the impeachment controversy, he was quietly working with Clinton on a “grand compromise” for Social Security and Medicare.
5. Gingrich lacks the drive to win the presidency.
Earlier this year, several of his campaign aides quit, saying he was shunning the mundane tasks that a presidential candidate must take on. At the time, some speculated that Gingrich was less interested in running for president than in preaching grand ideas. But for Gingrich, preaching is not a distraction — it is the essence of campaigning. He often speaks of Winston Churchill, who spent his own wilderness years speaking and writing before his nation called him back to power.
Gingrich’s drive transcends normal politics. “I have an enormous personal ambition,” he told The Post in 1985. “I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it. . . . The ambitions that this city focuses on are trivial if you’re a historian. Who cares?”
Now Gingrich has a chance to realize some of those ambitions. Will his complex record weigh him down? It’s a dilemma any historian should understand.
John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College and a co-author of “American Government and Politics: Deliberation, Democracy, and Citizenship.”
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