In an unnoticed 1992 speech, Newt Gingrich in a single utterance took aim not only at a beloved conservative icon but also at a core tenet of the conservative movement: that government must be limited.

Ronald Reagan’s “weakness,” Gingrich told the National Academy of Public Administration in Atlanta, was that “he didn’t think government mattered. . . . The Reagan failure was to grossly undervalue the centrality of government as the organizing mechanism for reinforcing societal behavior.”

A review of thousands of documents detailing Gingrich’s career shows it wasn’t the first time he had criticized Reagan, whom he regularly invokes today in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. When Gingrich was in the House, his chief of staff noted at a 1983 staff meeting that his boss frequently derided Reagan, along with then-White House Chief of Staff James A. Baker III and Robert H. Michel, the House Republican leader.

Gingrich “assumed that he’s the whole Republican Party,” said the Gingrich aide, Frank Gregorsky, according to a transcript of the meeting. “He knows more than the president, the president’s people, Michel, Baker. He calls them stupid all the time, and I think that’s going to get him into big trouble someday.”

The speech and meeting transcripts are contained in a largely unexplored cache of documents compiled by a former Gingrich aide and archived at the University of West Georgia, where Gingrich was an assistant professor in the 1970s.

An examination of the papers collected over nearly three decades reveals a politician of moderate-to-liberal beginnings, a product of the civil rights era who moved to the right with an eye on political expediency — and privately savaged Republicans he was praising in public. Even as he gained a reputation as a conservative firebrand, the documents show Gingrich was viewed by his staff primarily as a tactician — the “tent evangelist” of the conservative movement, one staffer said — with little ideological core.

The files offer a candid glimpse of the former House speaker, a man who could be charming and self-effacing one moment, ambitious and grandiose the next, an admittedly disorganized manager who viewed his role as nothing less than saving the Western world.

“When I say save the West, I mean that,” Gingrich said in a 1979 address to his congressional staff, preserved in the files. “That is my job. . . . It is not my job to win reelection. It is not my job to take care of passport problems. It is not my job to get a bill through Congress. My job description as I have defined it is to save Western civilization.”

Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond, asked for comment on the material in the files, said Gingrich’s record is conservative, because he secured the “first GOP majorities in the U.S. House in 40 years, balanced budgets” and helped cut taxes, enact entitlement reforms and bolster intelligence spending as House speaker in the mid-1990s.

“Results matter,” Hammond said.

‘Progressive’ days

As Gingrich tries to revive his campaign for the 2012 presidential nomination, he has cast himself as the conservative alternative to rival Mitt Romney.

Yet in 1974, the 31-year-old Gingrich was seeking office with many avowedly liberal positions.

He had been deeply affected by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968, which motivated him to work that year for presidential candidate Nelson A. Rockefeller, a left-leaning Republican often derided by conservatives.

His work for Rockefeller was “a good learning experience but was probably not very wise politically,” Gingrich later recalled to his congressional staff.

The documents include internal memos, handwritten notes and campaign fliers charting Gingrich’s political ascent, compiled by Mel Steely, a longtime aide, Gingrich supporter and retired professor who wrote a 2000 biography of the former House speaker.

“Newt was a rising, interesting person, and I’m a historian,” said Steely, explaining why he kept the files and donated them to the university. Steely had Gingrich’s cooperation in writing the biography.

Gingrich had described himself as a “progressive” in his 1970 application to teach at what was then West Georgia College. That self-description changed to a “common-sense conservative” by his 1974 race, when Gingrich skewered his opponent, incumbent Rep. John J. Flynt Jr. (D-Ga.), for voting against numerous government programs.

One campaign flier described Gingrich as a “family man” — picturing him in front of his Georgia home with his two daughters and his first wife, Jackie — and vowed he would improve Medicare benefits and reduce tax loopholes for the rich.

An internal campaign memo proposed a costly expansion of veterans’ benefits — and cited a similar bill offered by liberal Sen. George McGovern (D-S.D.) as an example.

It is unclear whether Gingrich endorsed the proposal, but in later years he would call Democrats, including Bill and Hillary Clinton, “counterculture McGovernicks.”

And years before he would incur the wrath of conservatives by sitting on a couch with then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to call for action on climate change — an appearance he has since repudiated — the 1974 Gingrich ran as an environmentalist. At the time, he was coordinator of environmental studies at West Georgia College, a new program he had proposed.

Facing a tough Republican year in the shadow of the Watergate scandal, Gingrich narrowly lost in 1974 and again in 1976. In that second race, according to the files, he opposed a constitutional amendment to limit abortions while supporting a Cabinet-level Education Department, an agency many conservatives have vowed to eliminate. He won election to Congress in 1978.

Seeing daylight on the right

On the day he took office in 1979, the newly elected congressman gathered his staff and described his vision for the future.

Balancing the federal budget, he predicted, “is an idea whose time will have come in about five years,” according to a 63-page transcript of the meeting. Since supporting a balanced budget was “politically . . . a desirable thing,” he vowed to make it a primary focus.

Even as he publicly spoke of the need to cut spending, in private he pushed for government funding, urging his staff in handwritten notes to pursue federal money in areas such as energy-efficient housing and education.

By the early 1980s, Gingrich was becoming a rising star among conservatives, known for his rhetorical bombs at Democrats. While he was praised by Jerry L. Falwell’s Moral Majority, Gingrich was taking some criticism inside his office. In a 1982 memo, Gregorsky told his boss that his position on abortion depended on “whatever side yelled at you last,” that Gingrich focused only on “where the country is” on abortion and that he treated the “morality” of the issue with “Olympian disdain.”

In other memos, Gregorsky praised Gingrich, and in a recent interview, he called the GOP candidate a “visionary.” But he added in the interview, “Newt is not any kind of an ideological conservative.”

While Gingrich differed sharply with the Reagan administration on issues such as defense spending and foreign policy, he effusively praised the president for national audiences.

“He is the most articulate, most charming, most aggressive conservative we’ve had, possibly since Theodore Roosevelt,” Gingrich was quoted as saying in a 1983 Associated Press story.

Yet behind closed doors, Gingrich raged at Reagan and other conservatives, especially after House Republicans lost seats in the 1982 elections. And back in Georgia, newspapers quoted him as saying something different. “Really, Reaganomics has failed,” Gingrich said.

‘Why do you think I peaked?’

In his presidential campaign, Gingrich has proudly admitted to being “grandiose,” a trait that runs through the archived files.

Some staff members found Gingrich’s call to save Western civilization inspiring and felt called to a higher purpose. Others rolled their eyes.

“When I heard it in the beginning, I thought he was a man from Mars,” congressional staffer Faye Williams said in a 1980 interview for an internal staff document. “It was just like somebody saying they wanted to be a moonman.” She added: “But Newt has a way of saying things that makes you think. . . . He’s really going to try to do that.”

Although Gingrich told his staff in 1979 that he had no interest in higher office, a handwritten note in the files shows that he discussed being House speaker with Steely in 1974.

As he advanced toward the leadership, he focused extensively on media coverage and chatting up influential columnists, the documents show. But when Mother Jones magazine ran a 1984 article titled “The Swinging Days of Newt Gingrich,” his staff dug up past issues and wrote an internal report blasting the magazine, while Gingrich wrote supporters excoriating the article as a “hatchet job.”

In 1996, the year after Gingrich became speaker, a note by Steely quoted him dismissing that year’s Republican vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp, a conservative icon whom Gingrich had lauded in public.

Gingrich said he wasn’t angry at Kemp, “but felt he owed him nothing else.” And it quoted him saying he would run for president in 2000 if Robert J. Dole, the 1996 Republican nominee, lost.

Gingrich “did not consider this (Speaker) the peak of his career” and asked: “Why do you think I peaked?” Steely’s note said.

Hard on himself — and others

The man who was so critical of others could also train his fire on himself.

Gingrich admitted to being a poor manager, heavily dependent on staff. “Every time I get involved in daily management, I goof it up,” he wrote in a 1983 memo. “I can’t do anything but give speeches, vote and make decisions.”

He urged his aides to serve his needs. “Somehow, the staff needs to function to think ahead, around and behind me — think ahead so that it says ‘I’m going with Newt next Tuesday. What will Newt need. . . ?’ ” Gingrich wrote.

He was a demanding boss — working into the night and churning out ideas while sometimes yelling and throwing papers, according to internal staff interviews in the files. But staffers also worried about his exhaustion and grumpy demeanor. “Newt . . . needs to develop a smile, or at least get a relaxed face,” an unnamed staff member wrote in 1984 after a meeting with a debate coach.

His staff noted that he could be sensitive about his weight. When a staff member referred to Gingrich as “the big man” in a 1984 memo, he scrawled at the top: “The big man? I am on Scarsdale,” an apparent reference to the then-popular Scarsdale diet.

Gingrich’s first two wives, Jackie and Marianne, appear in the papers as supportive spouses, heavily involved in his career. Yet there are suggestions of the twice-divorced candidate’s turbulent personal life. At a 1981 meeting, staff members worried about how to handle publicity about Gingrich’s impending second marriage, to Marianne.

And an undated handwritten note from Steely hints at the effect the divorce had on Jackie. “Jackie . . . pizza in face, poured the drink on him.”

Gingrich was often passionate, even emotional, in private. But he was also passionate about ideas, among them his longtime fascination with space.

In a 1983 staff meeting — three decades before he would propose a colony on the moon during his presidential campaign — he insisted on pursuing $60 million a year in federal funding aimed at building 12 space stations and a mine on the moon. According to a transcript, he said he wanted to “mandate” that NASA take the money. He proposed unionizing workers in space. And Republican leaders who were resisting additional funds for science, he said, were “idiots” and “so incredibly stupid.”

Research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.