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Mark Shields: Gingrich Rewrites His Reagan Connection

What he says now regarding the former president blatantly contradicts the facts

In 1995, when Newt Gingrich first became speaker of the House of Representatives, Bob Dole was already on the threshold of becoming the longest-serving Senate Republican leader in U.S. history. Relations between the two GOP leaders, which were never chummy, were not helped by Gingrich’s openly disparaging Dole as “the tax collector for the welfare state.”

Barely two years later, after having been chosen Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Gingrich had plummeted in public esteem to where, in a CBS-New York Times poll, just 14 percent of voters had favorable personal feelings toward the speaker.

This prompted an apocryphal Washington exchange between Gingrich and Dole. “Why do people take such an instant dislike to me?” asked a perplexed Gingrich, to whom Dole bluntly explained: “Because it saves them time.”

Watching the last televised candidates debate before the Jan. 3 Iowa presidential caucuses, and hearing Gingrich once again invoke the name and record of President Ronald Reagan as well as his own close relationship with Reagan, reminded me that Dole wasn’t the only one on the receiving end of Gingrich’s barbs.

At the Reagan presidential library this fall, Gingrich boasted of how “I helped Reagan create millions of jobs while he was president.” And after modestly acknowledging his own less significant role than Reagan’s, added, “We helped defeat the Soviet empire.” Unmentioned by Gingrich then, or in any of the 2,414 debates during this campaign, was his 1985 criticism of Reagan’s historic meeting with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as “the most dangerous summit for the West since Adolf Hitler met with (British Prime Minister Neville) Chamberlain at Munich in 1938.”

In an interview on CNBC, Gingrich recently emphasized his close identification with the nation’s 40th president: “I’ve done a movie on Ronald Reagan called Rendezvous with Destiny. Callista and I did. We’ve done a book on Ronald Reagan. You know I campaigned with Reagan. I first met Reagan in ‘74. I’m very happy to talk about Ronald Reagan.”

Just like when Gingrich went to the House floor during the Gipper’s second White House term and declared his Soviet policy a “failure.” Here is what Gingrich said: “Measured against the scale and momentum of the Soviet empire’s challenge, the Reagan administration has failed, is failing and without a dramatic, fundamental change in strategy will continue to fail. ... The burden of the failure frankly must be placed first upon President Reagan.”

This was after Gingrich, as reported in the Congressional Record, had found Reagan responsible for our national “decay”: “Beyond the obvious indicators of decay, the fact is that President Reagan has lost control of the national agenda.” Students of Gingrich-speak will recognize that by “decay,” Gingrich was generally referring to factors such as crime, illegitimate births and illiteracy.

These blatant contradictions between what Congressman Gingrich actually said at the time about President Reagan and what Candidate Gingrich now offers as fictitious reminiscences of his unwavering allegiance to Reagan remind me of one of the former speaker’s own broadsides against Washington, D.C. “In this cold and ruthless city,” he once said, “the center of hypocrisy is Capitol Hill.”

Gingrich is quite obviously an expert on both subjects.

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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