Newt Vs. Reagan, The Sequel

Both Elliott Abrams, at National Review Online, and, as John Hinderaker noted yesterday, Pete Wehner (quoting from my book) have brought up Newt Gingrich’s pungent criticisms of Reagan back in the 1980s, supposedly giving the lie to Newt’s claim to have been solidly aligned with Reagan in those glory days of conservative nostalgia.  It is perfectly fair of Elliott and Pete to call Newt on his revisionist history, but what kind of historian would Newt be if he wasn’t a revisionist historian?  More seriously, Newt deserves a partial defense about all of this, or at least to have his critical comments placed in a wider context, and with the right questions posed today.  The part of my book Pete Wehner quotes is just a small portion of a long description of the widespread conservative discontent with Reagan at the time. The point is, Newt was hardly an isolated example.  Here’s more where that came from:

What was different as 1987 drew toward a close is that so many conservatives now joined the chorus of dismay and disillusionment.  Fred Barnes wrote in August that Reagan “is weakened, aged, and sometimes disconsolate.”  National Review’s pseudonymous Washington correspondent “Cato” reported in early September that “Many big-name conservatives here think Ronald Reagan has lost his soul.”  A Human Events front-page headline blared, “Conservatives Depressed by Rudderless Administration.”  The lead of the story read: “The Reagan Administration appears to have lost its will to survive.” Sir James Goldsmith, a prominent British conservative with close ties to America, wrote a widely noted article for the Wall Street Journal entitled “America, You Falter.”

Republican Senator James McClure of Idaho worried, “We’ve had leaders who got into a personal relationship and have gotten soft—I’m thinking of Roosevelt and Stalin.” If McClure’s comment was less than subtle, other conservatives didn’t even try to be artful.  Conservative activist Howard Phillips said Reagan was “fronting as a useful idiot for Soviet propaganda.”  There was talk among some conservative activist groups of founding an “Anti-Appeasement Alliance” to oppose Reagan’s diplomatic overtures to the Soviet Union.  Advertisements were prepared comparing Reagan to Neville Chamberlain, and the INF Treaty to the Munich accord.  Rep. Jack Kemp and other conservatives in the House [Newt was probably among them] called for [George] Shultz to be fired. . .

These doubts about Reagan were not limited to the know-nothing ranks of right-wingers.  George Will charged that Reagan was engaging in “the moral disarmament of the West by elevating wishful thinking to the status of political philosophy.”  Patrick Glynn, recently departed from the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, wrote in Commentary: “This avowedly most conservative of recent American Presidents has emerged as a champion of nuclear disarmament measures far more radical and sweeping than even many arms-control proponents deem advisable.” National Review went into full opposition: “The impending INF deal requires observers to come to an unfortunate conclusion: that Ronald Reagan is no longer predictable on matters of nuclear strategy. . .  It is simply impossible any longer to count on the Reagan Administration one way or another.”  Before long National Review came to call the INF Treaty “a suicide pact.”  William Safire took dead aim in the New York Times: “His overnight abandonment of realism—his notion that a change of line and style marks a basic change of purpose—suggests that Mr. Reagan has slipped his strategic moorings.”

There’s more where this came from.  This entire exercise saw its prequel in 1982, when conservatives were dismayed at the budget deal Reagan struck that raised taxes and promised to cut spending.  (Reagan later regretted that deal, too, when Congress failed to deliver the spending cuts.)  There was also a lot of unhappiness at what conservatives thought was a weak response to martial law in Poland.  Norman Podhoretz complained that Reagan “talks like Churchill, but acts like Chamberlain.”

I made a major point in my book to recall conservative disaffection for Reagan at the time for several reasons: first, behind the scenes there was a lot more going on that we didn’t—and couldn’t—perceive; now we know a whole lot more.  Maybe my favorite example is another of George Will’s pronouncements.  When the first missile treaty was signed in 1987, Will wrote that future historians would identify that day as the moment the West lost the Cold War.  I asked George about that comment a few years back, and to his credit he said, “I was wrong; Reagan knew a lot more than I thought he did.”

Second, recalling this dimension of the Reagan years is an antidote to simple-minded and un-modulated nostalgia that forgets these frustrations, and especially their source—the inherent limitations of politics, a constitutional system that make change difficult, and the supreme requirement of prudence in political leadership–the single most difficult thing to make out in presidents and prospective presidents.  (More on this in a moment.)  I tire of hearing callers to talk radio say, as I heard one do on Mark Levin last night, that “we need to get someone in the White House who will repeal Obamacare.”  No, we need a Congress that will repeal Obamacare; the President cannot do so all by himself.

Which brings us to the subject of Congress.  Newt has taken a lot of ridicule for his syntactically-challenged statement that he helped Reagan fight “Communism in Congress,” when everyone knows that the problem was Communism in the Soviet Union.  Ha-ha; maybe Newt should just stick with adverbs.  Well, not so fast.  Anyone remember the “Dear Commandante” letter from the Democrats’ pro-Sandinista caucus of the House (that included their majority leader, Jim Wright)?  And just who led the attack on that deep irresponsibility?  Yep: our Newt.  Here’s the relevant passage from the ur-text my book:

Gingrich’s attack on the “Dear Commandante” letter was merely one skirmish line in the intensifying bitterness and partisanship in the House.  In 1984 Gingrich and about a dozen other House Republicans began using the “Special Orders” period at the end of the day and in the evening, when House members may give longer speeches to be included in the Congressional Record, to launch a sustained attack on Democrats.  Typically there were no Democrats present to engage in debate, so the attacks went unanswered.  However, because C-SPAN broadcast the “Special Orders,” the Republican criticism was reaching a wider public audience and was beginning to attract notice.  By rule, C-SPAN cameras were tightly fixed on the individual speaker in the House well, and did not convey that the House chamber was virtually empty during Special Orders.  House Speaker Tip O’Neill, annoyed at Gingrich’s tactics, ordered C-SPAN cameras to pan the House during Special Orders to show up the Republicans.

Republicans cried foul, charging O’Neill with a “dirty trick” and an “arrogant and arbitrary abuse of power.”  Invoking “personal privilege,” Gingrich took the House floor to rebut O’Neill’s claim that Republicans had unfairly used Special Orders to attack Democrats without notice.  Gingrich had in fact sent letters to House Democrats informing them of the arguments and issues Republicans would present during Special Orders, and inviting them to debate.  O’Neill lost his temper, and made a rare trip to the well of the House to take on Gingrich, where he promptly blundered.  O’Neill charged that Gingrich’s tactics were “Un-American. . .  It’s the lowest thing I’ve heard in my 32 years here!”

But O’Neill’s personal language was a violation of House rules. Republican House whip Trent Lott pounced; he interrupted with a parliamentary inquiry.  The House parliamentarian sided with the Republicans, informing the House chair (O’Neill’s fellow Massachusetts Democrat Joe Moakley) that O’Neill’s words had to be “taken down.”  It was a stunning rebuke to O’Neill, who sat down red faced as nearly the entire Republican caucus gave Gingrich a standing ovation.  The episode quickly became known as “Camscam,” and Gingrich’s triumphant faceoff against O’Neill made the news on all three broadcast networks that night and the front page of the Washington Post the next day.  As the Washington Post noted, one Republican who conspicuously did not join the ovation was minority leader Bob Michel, who played golf regularly with O’Neill and disliked the partisan rancor Gingrich and his insurgents had brought to the House.  This was precisely the problem from Gingrich’s point of view—the Republican minority had been too accommodating for too long.  “Democrats have been in the majority for almost 60 years, cheerfully fighting in public,” Gingrich told the Washington Post; “Majorities worry about gathering the energy of conflict in order to dominate.”  Now, Trent Lott said, Republicans were “absolutely united” in their anger over the heavy-handed way Democrats ran the House, and resolved to be more aggressive in opposition.

As the Washington Post laconically commented, “During the fiery arguments on the floor yesterday, the GOP’s center of gravity appeared to be moving toward that view and away from House Republican leader Michel.”  It was a genuine watershed moment in the political course of the 1980s; the friction between the parties, and within the parties, in the House would grow steadily worse over the next few years.

This recalls an important fault line of the 1970s and 1980s—the increasing irresponsibility and executive branch encroachment of Congress.  Recall that the GOP Minority Report of the Iran-Contra investigation, produced chiefly by Dick Cheney, criticized Reagan for not confronting Congress more vigorously on behalf of executive prerogative in foreign affairs.  People can disagree about whether the Reagan Administration was too timid, or just right, in calibrating its fight with Congress.  This is a question of prudence, the hardest thing to make out in statesmen.  One thing is undeniable: Newt was in the vanguard of challenging the Democratic hegemony of Congress.  In 1988 the Claremont Institute and the Heritage Foundation jointly published The Imperial Congress, which laid out the case for the constitutional distortion of the gradual aggrandizement of Congress since the New Deal.  The book featured a strong forward by . . . Newt Gingrich.  The point is, the old-guard GOP establishment offered little or no serious resistance to the Imperial Congress; only Newt and his fellow insurgents did.

The real question concerning Newt is not whether he has changed his mind or conveniently forgotten about his occasional distemper with Reagan, but whether he perceives or has acquired the same kind of prudence we now recognize Reagan to have had much more clearly than many of us did at the time.  Elliott, Pete, John, and everyone else are right to raise the question of whether Newt’s peripatetic speculations and outbursts give us ample cause to doubt an affirmative answer; certainly his opportunistic attack on Bain Capital a couple weeks back was deeply imprudent.  But let us also have the whole picture and complete context in mind, and give the man his due.

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