Thursday, July 19 , 2018, 6:15 pm | Fair 75º


Mark Shields: When Newt Gingrich Was Speaker of the House ...

Republican presidential candidate's revisionist history gives credit where it's not due

“When I was speaker of the House, gas was $1.13 a gallon.”

“In the four years I was speaker, we created 11 million new jobs.”

“Overall spending grew at an average of 2.9 percent while I was speaker of the House, the slowest rate in decades — allowed us to reach a balanced budget.”

“I was speaker of the House for four years. We balanced the budget for four straight years.”

You guessed it. These are the public words of current Republican presidential candidate and former speaker of the House, the unassuming, mild-mannered Newt Gingrich.

Let’s not dwell on any imperfection. Yes, Gingrich was speaker of the House for four years, and yes, the United States did balance its budget for four straight years. But they were not the same four years: Gingrich became speaker on Jan. 3, 1995, and announced his resignation on Dec. 6, 1998. The federal budget was indeed in balance in both fiscal years 1998 and 1999 (which were during Gingrich’s tenure) and in surplus in fiscal years 2000 and 2001, after he had returned to private life. But in the first two years of his speakership, fiscal years 1996 and 1997, the federal budget was in deficit.

Instead, let’s give Gingrich credit for a new, refreshing way of looking at American eras. Sure, we have had the Great Depression, World Wars I and II, the Cold War, as well as our presidents — the Ronald Reagan years or the Bill Clinton years. But now we find out that the real prime mover turns out to be the speaker of the U.S. House.

Gas was $1.13 a gallon, not because Clinton was president, but because Gingrich was speaker.

Only becoming modesty must prevent Gingrich from telling us, “When I was speaker, we found a vaccine for Lyme disease.” He could also add: “When I was speaker, the brutal tyrant Pol Pot finally surrendered in Cambodia, was tried and was sentenced to life.” Or, “When I was speaker and after Elton John had sold 32 million copies of ‘Candle in the Wind,’ his tribute to Princess Diana, Elton John, during my speakership, then donated all the proceeds to the princess’ favorite charities.”

It can hardly be an accident that both The Lion King and Saving Private Ryan were created when Gingrich was speaker.

I never heard the late Thomas “Tip” O’Neill say, “When I was speaker, Mormons ordained their first black priest” — which, in fact, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints did do.

O’Neill, under the Gingrich rules, could have accurately announced, “When I was speaker for 10 years, the nation’s gross domestic product grew at an annual rate of 8.3 percent.”

When did Columbia University become the last all-male Ivy League school to admit women. When did Sally Ride become the first woman in space. When was the first Polish pope elected. When did we first read USA Today? Those are all easy: When O’Neill was speaker of the House.

From now on, remember exactly when the United States fought and defeated Nazi Germany and the Imperial armies of Japan. Of course, by the calendar, it was 1941-1945. But, more precisely, it was when the great Sam Rayburn of Texas was speaker of the House.

As he does so often, Gingrich has given us his own unique perspective, for which we can only be grateful and look forward to his reminding us: “When I was speaker, interleague play actually began between Major League Baseball teams ... and gas was $1.13 a gallon.”

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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