To listen to the candidate, the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s was about the Gipper and Newt.
“I worked with President Reagan in the entire recovery of the 1980s,” Newt Gingrich declared in a recent debate of Republican presidential hopefuls. He frequently talks about the way he and Ronald Reagan “changed” Washington.
The former House speaker has cited Reagan 61 times in 19 debates; he casts the contest against former Governor Mitt Romney as one between a “Massachusetts moderate” and a “Reagan conservative.”
“Gingrich had absolutely nothing to do with the Reagan Revolution,” replies Lou Cannon, who as a journalist covered the entire Reagan presidency and wrote the best biography of the 40th president, “President Reagan: The Role of a Lifetime.”
“There were congressmen who influenced Reagan, especially Jack Kemp,” Cannon said in an interview. “I’m not sure Reagan even knew who Gingrich was.”
Gingrich is only mentioned once in Cannon’s book, in a discussion about the post-Reagan era. In one of the former president’s own books, “The Reagan Diaries,” the ex-Georgia congressman comes up only once in passing and the reference is largely negative. He doesn’t appear at all in Reagan’s autobiography, “An American Life” or Edmund Morris’ biography, “Dutch.”
The central figure in the Reagan administration was James A. Baker, first White House chief of staff and then Treasury secretary. One Reagan insider ventures that in those eight years he doesn’t believe that Baker ever met one-on-one with the Georgia congressman.
This past weekend in Florida, the Romney and Gingrich forces were trotting out dueling experts to comment on the former Georgia lawmaker’s role in the Reagan years. Elliott Abrams, a former official in Reagan’s State Department, took one of the former congressman’s typically hyperbolic broadsides to suggest he was anti-Reagan on national security; Abrams is a Romney supporter.
On the other side, Craig Shirley, a conservative activist and author of books on the former president who is backing Gingrich, correctly questions Romney’s Reagan credentials. He then exaggerates his own candidate’s bona fides with claims such as the one that Gingrich was put on the party’s platform committee in 1984 to “protect” the president’s interests. That year, the president so dominated his party that he needed no protection.
Cannon is the most authoritative Reagan expert today; his critique has more credibility than the others’.
To be sure, the ex-speaker’s rivals aren’t well-positioned to attack him on this score. During his unsuccessful race to unseat Massachusetts Senator Edward M. Kennedy in 1994, Romney distanced himself from the former president, emphasizing that he had been a political independent in the 1980s. “I’m not trying to return to Reagan-Bush,” Romney said in a debate with Kennedy.
Today, Reagan stands alone as a hero to Republican constituents and politicians. None of the current candidates can claim much resemblance to his persona.
He had shortcomings. He could be insensitive, a few of his policies had cruel results; his imagination sometimes exceeded his judgment and, on occasion, he was oblivious or ignorant of basic facts.
Yet he often transcended those flaws; some admirers considered him a committed conservative, others a governing pragmatist. He was both.
He was a can-do optimist who, despite many years in Hollywood, identified with and embodied American values. “It’s the damndest thing,” a Reagan adviser once marveled, “he spent years around the rich and famous and still relates to a gas-station attendant.”
Gingrich’s closest identification with that attendant is that for a time he lived above a gas station as a child. Romney doesn’t even pretend to identify.
Reagan also had a capacity, as Cannon notes, to seem larger than himself; he did it repeatedly. The longtime journalist and author says he’s only observed one candidate reach those heights during the current primary fight; that was former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum during his (semi) victory speech after the Iowa caucuses.
“Santorum didn’t seem to know how effective that was,” Cannon says, “He’s never repeated it.”
Although Reagan could be harsh in his criticism of institutions and ideological movements, he rarely focused on running down his opponents, especially fellow Republicans. “He never said anything remotely as negative as Romney and Gingrich said about each other last week,” Cannon says.
The oldest man ever elected president regaled voters with stories about the past while always looking to the future. To him, American exceptionalism was more than a campaign slogan and he really believed the country’s best days were ahead. “Reagan projected the future,” Cannon recalls. “These guys don’t.”
The candidate who presents himself as an original Reaganite is Gingrich. Campaigning in Florida this weekend, he said he was “very proud to run on a Reagan-Gingrich record.” The Georgia lawmaker, in fact, was a backbencher in the House during the 1980s; while he brilliantly plotted the Republican takeover of the House a decade later, he played almost no role in the Reagan agenda.
His assertions to the contrary infuriate Reagan-watchers like Cannon. “I find Gingrich almost condescending in the way he talks about Reagan,” he says. “He tries to attach himself to the coattails or the image, saying, ‘I’m Reaganesque,’ without any evidence.”
Reagan was sunny; Gingrich is often sneering. The former president preferred to charm; the former speaker prefers to confront. For the last quarter century of his public life, the Gipper had a North Star of conviction; Gingrich is in perpetual reinvention, personally and politically.
On his website, the insurgent candidate says he’s been a “Reagan man” since 1974. That was the year I first met Gingrich, over a leisurely lunch in Washington. He was then an exciting new congressional candidate. He was dazzling, exuberant and talkative. He said his two Republican role models were Linwood Holton, the progressive Republican governor of Virginia, and Nelson Rockefeller, the former governor of New York and vice president to Gerald Ford.
There was no mention of Reagan.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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