When Newt went to Oxford

In his Washington Post column speculating what an Obama-Gingrich debate would look like, Claremont-McKenna Professor John Pitney recalls the February 1985 Oxford Union debate on American foreign policy in Central America. The AP account of the debate is still available online. Professor Pitney recalls the debate for purposes specific to his column, but (to say the least) it also adds interesting context to the discussion of Newt’s relation to Ronald Reagan and the conservative movement in the 1980′s. Without further comment, here is the February 1985 AP story:

U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich won praise today for an impressive defense of U.S. Central American policy but lost an Oxford “debate” to a team led by Nicaragua’s vice president, who made his case and then left before the Gingrich spoke because the conservative U.S. lawmaker was of lower rank than he.

At the end of the evening Thursday, the vote was 285 to 158 in favor of the question, “American involvement in Central America is an affront to Western values.”

The Oxford Union president, Roland Rudd, said the Georgia Republican also was a good sport for agreeing, with only three hours’ notice, to the unusual format that permitted Sergio Ramirez to make a diplomatic point by walking out.

He said the Union, where many British leaders learned their debating skills, wanted an internationally known American to appear with the Nicaraguan. But departing U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) declined on the ground that Ramirez represented “an illegitimate regime.”

“We were delighted when Gingrich accepted,” Rudd said, but the Nicaraguans said their vice president could not debate a mere congressman and the unorthodox format was agreed upon.

Thus Ramirez, the opening speaker, left without hearing Gingrich or the Oxford students who addressed the question.

Rudd said Gingrich spoke brilliantly and deserved the standing ovation he received from the crowd of more than 1,000 people.

“Ramirez got his (ovation) because of what he represented,” Rudd said. “Gingrich earned his by sheer brilliance.”

In his speech, Gingrich attacked the debate question’s criticism of U.S. policy in Central America and took the offensive against the leftist government of Nicaragua.

“Marxist-Leninism is an intellectual description of the most powerful technique for using power to oppress human beings that we have found in the 20th Century,” he said

He mocked Ramirez for leaving the debate on the ground that debating a U.S. congressman was below the dignity of his office.

“I find it strange that a Marxist regime would be concerned about hierarchy,” Gingrich said.

The congressman said that, in each year since 1968, the Soviet Union has sent more military aid to the region than the United States has sent.

For his part, Ramirez called on President Reagan to halt military support for the rebels fighting Nicaragua’s Sandinista government and urged the United States to negotiate a peaceful solution to Central America’s problems….

Responses