Special Report

Reagan’s Young Lieutenant

Gingrich a star on Reagan team: Romney "work product" as conservative at issue.

By 1.24.12

Send to Kindle

Mitt Romney has raised the issue of Newt Gingrich's "work product."

Wow.

Intended to prod the former Speaker on the issue of his work for Freddie Mac (Gingrich last night released his contract with Freddie), the question, as seems to be a Romney characteristic, has clumsily backfired. It raises an all-too obvious question that is becoming increasingly revealing.

What is Mitt Romney's "work product" for the conservative cause?

The closest Mitt Romney ever got to the Reagan Revolution is apparently because he reads about it 30 years later. And he isn't even reading everything he should. This is the man, remember, who proudly professed when running against Ted Kennedy in 1994:

"I was an independent during the time of Reagan-Bush. I'm not trying to return to Reagan-Bush"

A peculiar stance considering Reagan carried Massachusetts twice in his two presidential landslides. Romney now assures that Newt Gingrich -- who actually had a serious and considerably well-known role working with Reagan -- had little role in it. (By the way, Reagan won over 1, 310, 936 votes and over 51 percent in Massachusetts in his 1984 re-election race, while Romney won his solitary gubernatorial victory in 2002 with 1,091,988 votes and 49.77 percent. Which is to say, Reagan outpolled Romney by over 200,000. In 1980, third party candidate John Anderson drew off 15 percent of Reagan's vote, otherwise, one suspects, Reagan would have trumped Romney then as well.)

Why? Why is Romney going after Gingrich on his supposed lack of Reagan ties?

Because the former Governor apparently looked into the "G" section of the Reagan Diaries and found the then backbench congressman's name but once.

The ignorance this shows about what was actually happening inside the Reagan Revolution -- not to mention the positive change Ronald Reagan and his lieutenants like Newt Gingrich were bringing to Washington and America -- is almost painful to watch. Romney flounders, giving the impression that he is learning conservatism as others learn painting by numbers. A splotch of free market economics here at Number 1, a dab of social issues over there at Number 2… or not…or, well, maybe… or… yes, kinda sort of maybe… ending with bright bold colorful strokes of national security war paint at Number 3.

And voila. Conservatism by Romney.

Why would one in the position Mitt Romney now finds himself -- thoroughly defeated in South Carolina by a surge of support for Gingrich's conservatism -- ever even entertain the idea of going after Newt Gingrich on Reagan?

This utterly dumb line of attack for Romney is as bad if not worse than Gingrich's flirtation with attacking Bain Capital. It raises exactly all the questions of Romney's vulnerabilities. Why, for example, did Romney deliberately play the wimp when it comes to defending Ronald Reagan in Massachusetts? At precisely the time in the fall of 1994, it should be noted, when Newt Gingrich was leading Chapter 2 in the Reagan Revolution? Is Romney really trying to draw attention to the fact that while Gingrich and hundreds of Republicans were on the verge of a historic landslide retaking the House by attaching themselves to the Reagan legacy… Romney ran from Reagan… and got clobbered?

If even those simple political basics can't be learned, which in Romney's case now include not just the broader inability to defend either Reagan or free markets but the quite specific inability to use the general principle of free markets and capitalism to defend himself over the inevitable "Mr. 1%" accusations -- this should be a red flag for conservatives.

Who knows why Romney gets tongue tied ? Or, as our friends at the Wall Street Journal note, "befuddled."

But the very fact of this latest attack on Gingrich for what Romney tries to imply is Newt's lack of ties to Reagan shows the "Massachusetts Moderate" (as Gingrich tags him) is unfamiliar with the details of Gingrich's role. Worse, Romney indicates a considerable ignorance about why Gingrich and others -- none of whom painted conservatism by the numbers -- were there fighting in the first place. All working under Reagan's leadership to begin to right a ship of state that was perilously close to the rocks in 1981 -- economically, socially, and on issues of national security.

Be that as it may, Romney has raised the question of Newt Gingrich's real role in the Reagan era. So let's take a look.

TO MORE FROM ART to sports, let's use a baseball analogy, the New York Yankees of the 1920's who were famously known as "Murderers' Row." They possessed in their line-up the man seen as the greatest baseball player of the day  and -- arguably -- all time: Babe Ruth. But Babe Ruth alone did not a Murderers' Row make. What made the New York Yankees of the 1920s such a legend -- in particular in 1927 -- was the collective power of the rest of the line-up. In particular the first six men at bat terrified opponents. One of them, Lou Gehrig, was later immortalized on film by Gary Cooper. The 1927 Yankees had a 110-44 win/loss record, won the pennant by 19 games, and swept the World Series.

If politics were sports, the period of the Reagan Revolution from 1981-1989 would be the 1927 Yankees. Without doubt, Ronald Reagan, would be the political version of Babe Ruth. As seen today by his fellow Americans, Reagan is viewed as America's greatest president in poll after poll (as in this one last year from Gallup that puts him even above the revered Abraham Lincoln).

But just as Babe Ruth was the leader of the Yankees, the leader of the team -- there was a team. Without which there would have been no Murderers' Row. Not to mention, no pennant and no World Series.

Ronald Reagan and the Reagan Revolution that he led had the political, intellectual, and governmental version of Murderers' Row. There was vision, energy, and principle when they ran out onto the political playing field. As with the Yankees of 1927, the Reagan Revolution had a star line-up. Government having a larger starting line-up than the nine positions on a baseball team, the Reagan Revolution's Murderers' Row had a considerable number of stars, every one of whom was a key player in their own fashion. Names like Jack Kemp, William Bennett, Edwin Meese, James Baker, Drew Lewis, Lyn Nofziger, Edward Rollins, Lee Atwater… the list goes on and on. Many were true conservatives -- some, like Baker and his deputy the late Richard Darman, were moderates. Yet all were brought together by Reagan to serve the conservative cause he had been outlining to the nation since that first famous speech he gave on behalf of Barry Goldwater in October, 1964 (seen here if you have never seen).

In 1985, as the second Reagan term began, an interesting book was published that captured the major players of the day. Not, as one might think, a biography or written record. The season of the Reagan Revolution was still very much ongoing. There was no time for the inevitable flood of memoirs. No, this book was something else -- a book of photographs, titled People and Power: Portraits From the Federal Village.

Its author/photographer was Michael Evans, President Reagan's personal photographer. Evans had the idea to make a list of the most influential people of the day in Washington, inveigle them to his studio, and take a quite personal black-and-white photo of each. Capturing for the record the men and women who made Washington what it was in the 1980s. The Reaganites and their opponents. Conservatives and liberals. Politicians and journalists. The famous and the unknown.

Dubbed "The Portrait Project," it was a considerable project. Not least because Evans forced himself to sit down and sift through a literally endless list, sorting out those who were considered in the day to be the people of power in their own individual areas within the nation's capital. Of all the thousands, he whittled his list down to over 600, in his words "from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to the Assistant Food Service Coordinator of the White House, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, administrative aides, journalists," and so on. From the thousands who became the 600-plus, Evans finally selected a mere 139. Say again, 139 men and women. Each pictured simply in black-and-white, identified only by their full, formal name (middle names included, no nicknames-thank-you-very-much) and title -- all who were seen in the day as what might be called Washington's movers and shakers in the time of the Reagan Revolution.

And of that list, on page 178, there he is:

Newton Leroy Gingrich (R-GEORGIA)
United States Representative

The famous mop of hair is only beginning to shade to its now-familiar white. There is a friendly, open smile and, yes, what appears to be several fewer pounds.

But the question is, considering the Romney implication that Gingrich was just another anonymous back-bencher congressman in the Reagan era -- what was Newt Gingrich doing in the middle of this book in the first place?

Photographer Evans selected only 19 members of the 435-member House of Representatives for his book featuring 139 people. The photograph that opened the book was perhaps the most influential and famous conservative outside of Reagan himself: Arizona's Senator Barry Goldwater. Like Goldwater in the Senate, most of those 19 House members were men of long tenure and vast power. They included the then-current Speaker of the House and the man who would succeed him as Speaker, Tip O'Neill. O'Neill's opposite number, the Republican House Leader Bob Michel. The powerful old bulls of both parties in the House were there -- men like Florida's Claude Pepper, Virginia's Dan Daniel, Illinois' Dan Rostenkowski and Henry Hyde as well as Michigan's Guy Vander Jagt.

But there, selected as one of the 19, was Newt Gingrich. 

Why young Newt in this particular book recording the serious power players of Reagan's Washington?

Newt Gingrich certainly was not Speaker or the House member pictured who already (and correctly) was thought to be the one who would follow O'Neill -- Jim Wright. He wasn't the Republican Leader or the Whip like the also-photographed Trent Lott or even a ranking member of a committee. By 1985 Newt Gingrich had been in the House of Representatives a sum total of six years, next to nothing against much older men like Speaker O'Neill (33 years in 1985) or Claude Pepper (23 years).

So why the young Congressman Newt in this book?

Answer: Newt Gingrich was part of the Reagan Revolution's Murderers' Row. And anybody who was in Washington in the day, much less in the Reagan White House or the 1984 Reagan re-election campaign (and I would make that particular cut of three), knew it.

WHAT, EXACTLY, DOES this mean? To use Mitt Romney's words, what was Newt Gingrich's "work product" for conservatism -- for America -- as part of Reagan's Murderers' Row?

Glad you asked. Here is an example of the kind of "work product" that made a young congressman from Georgia such a key player on Reagan's Murderers Row.

1984. Dallas, Texas. A story.

In May, former Reagan Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis, now a senior adviser in the President's re-election campaign, is asked by the Reagan White House to be the White House liaison to the Republican Platform Committee. A job scheduled to be done by presidential counsel Edwin Meese until Meese was nominated as attorney general.

Lewis jumped into the job, and I with him as his chief of staff in the campaign. The very first thing to be done was get a copy of the platform draft. It existed, drafted by a collection of staffers at work for the Platform Committee chair, then-Congressman Trent Lott of Mississippi.(The staff director's, by the way, was a young John Bolton, future Ambassador to the United Nations.) Once read -- line by line (my task) -- Lewis began meeting with key members already elected to the Platform Committee.

One of the first? That would be young Congressman Newt Gingrich, already serving as a member of the Platform Committee's executive committee. The meeting took place in Gingrich's basement book-lined House office, a cramped affair reflecting precisely how junior in rank Gingrich actually was in the House pecking order. The three of us -- Lewis, Gingrich, and myself -- sat for over an hour talking about what Newt saw as the problems ahead.

The meeting was pure Newt Gingrich. Precisely the kind of talk that so struck the Republican voters of South Carolina the other day and has captured Gingrich such a following in the GOP debates. It was filled with polite if barely disguised disdain for the American Left in general, and what he would later refer to as "the old, passive and reactive Republican party."

Specifically in focus was Gingrich's fear that the Republican RINO/Establishment members on the Platform Committee -- specifically this meant people like then-Kansas Senator Bob Dole (the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee) Connecticut Senator Lowell Weicker, and Virginia Senator John Warner -- would somehow try and moderate the Reagan Revolution with calls for tax increases or somehow lessening the Reagan demand for American military superiority over the Soviet Union.

To shorten the tale, once the executive committee arrived in Dallas in August for the week ahead of the actual convention and the traditional period in which the Platform Committee delegates assemble to do their task -- Gingrich's fears were realized in spades. All hell broke loose as Senator Dole -- carrying the prestige of the chairmanship of the Senate's tax writing committee -- insisted on an open-ended plank on taxes that would accept a tax increase as a "last resort."

BAM!

Newt struck back. Hard. In private session -- and public. Working with his fellow Young Turks Rep. Jack Kemp and Tom Loeffler from Texas, Newt Gingrich raised holy hell. What Dole was proposing was a violation of the Reagan 1980 platform, a gross violation of Reaganomics, and just plain dumb. With Democratic nominee Walter Mondale already out there pledging to raise taxes, this was effectively caving in to Mondale. Bob Dole, Newt snapped at one point, was nothing other than the "tax collector for the welfare state."

Ouch. 

The media ate it up. Gingrich, Kemp, and the Young Turks taking on the Old Guard. The problem, of course, was that the liberal media of the day -- remember there was no talk radio/Fox/Internet -- presented this all as a battle between old extremists and younger ones who were even worse (that would be Newt). The press delighted in trying to humiliate Reagan, who spent the week at his ranch in California more or less inaccessible until arriving the following week to accept his re-nomination. Meanwhile, on the phone were all manner of people furious with Newt Gingrich. Dick Darman was calling me. And then Secretary of the Treasury Donald Regan called Lewis. In that case I got to listen -- and didn't need an extension to do so. Notoriously short fused, sensitive to perceived slights and not the most politically skilled, Regan called from Washington threatening to come to Dallas personally and deal with Gingrich. Who was Newt Gingrich to be deciding on the tax prerogatives of the Treasury Secretary? The line practically melted, but Lewis soothed him and Regan stayed put.

The solution? A comma.

This sentence was the proximate cause of the fury:

We therefore oppose any attempts to increase taxes which would harm the recovery and reverse the trend to restoring control of the economy to individual Americans. 

At the insistence of Gingrich and Kemp and in an amendment proposed by Loeffler, a sentence that kept the door open for tax increases had a comma added to it after the word "taxes." 

The sentence now read subtly but considerably different: "We therefore oppose any attempts to increase taxes, which would harm the recovery and reverse the trend to restoring control of the economy to individual Americans."

The Gingrich work product? Making certain that Ronald Reagan was not put on record leaving the door open for any more ill-fated tax increases. Dole was furious with the young Newt -- and, it might be noted, recently made a point of endorsing Mitt Romney. Hmmmmm.

THE OTHER EXAMPLE of the kind of "work product" from Newt Gingrich that week was his opposition to Senator Warner's insistence that the word "superiority" be stricken from the national security section of the platform -- a word the Reaganites had insisted be in the 1980 platform. Getting his way in his Subcommittee on National Security, Warner suddenly found himself confronting Gingrich and Kemp over this issue as well. Gingrich insisted on inserting language saying that the U.S. must be "stronger than any potential adversary." He also insisted the full Platform Committee vote on the issue. The full committee sided with Gingrich and overruled Senator Warner.

Is it any wonder the Washington Republican Establishment can't stand Newt Gingrich? Doubtless there is some sincere sentiment about his management capabilities, his verbal and intellectual wanderings, and other things that did in fact disappoint conservative leaders over the years of his speakership. Perhaps the WSJ captured the sentiment best when it described the ex-Speaker's "penchant for over-the-top statements and sudden shifts of strategy or policy based on personal whim."

That said, time after time after time in the Reagan years, a number of those times which I had the opportunity to see up close as a young Reagan staffer charged in my duties with being the White House liaison to Gingrich and Kemp's Conservative Opportunity Society, Newt Gingrich was out there again and again and again for Ronald Reagan and conservative principles. In his own memoirs, The Politics of Diplomacy, James Baker noted of his days as Reagan White House Chief of Staff that he always "worked closely" with the people Baker described as "congressional leaders." And who were those leaders? Baker runs off a string of names of the older leaders of both House and Senate in the formal positions of power -- plus one. That's right: young Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich repeatedly demonstrated a considerable ability to illustrate conservative principle, help Reagan using events of the day. Here were two notable examples.

• Was the House of Representatives being run as a liberal fiefdom after decades of unchallenged power? It was Newt Gingrich who came up with the idea in 1984 of using what were called "special orders" -- a moment for House members at the end of the work day to stand in the well of the House and give speeches on the subject of their choice. With C-SPAN cameras newly present, Gingrich used these moments to launch a fusillade of attacks on liberals, enraging Speaker O'Neill and prompting the Speaker into a personal attack, violating House rules. The news was everywhere, and the Republican caucus of the day promptly gave Gingrich something South Carolinians did three times at the last two debates: a standing ovation.

• Was there a letter out there from ten House Democrats, including then-Majority Leader Jim Wright, playing up to the Nicaragua Sandinista Communist Daniel Ortega -- even as Reagan worked to fund the Contras and their fight for democracy? It was Newt Gingrich who made a point of getting a debate on the House floor, flatly accusing Wright and the others in their sycophantic "Dear Comandante" letter of violating the Logan Act. The law that prohibited anyone other than the executive branch from conducting American diplomacy. "Jim Wright is corrupt," Newt remarked at one COS meeting in my presence… a sign of things to come. It was Gingrich who boldly filed the ethics charges against the powerful Speaker Wright in 1988 -- charges that eventually forced Wright to resign as Speaker in 1989. There are many who believe the ethics charges against Speaker Gingrich, charges Romney is now trying to use against Gingrich, were made up and sold to a Gingrich-hating media by livid congressional liberals as payback for both nailing Wright and humiliating O'Neill -- not to mention Gingrich's role in electing a GOP House for the first time in forty years. For Romney to be following this line gives the impression he can be easily taken in by both the liberal media and the anti-Newt Democrats and GOP Establishment.

And so on. And on. Newt Gingrich's "work product" in the Reagan years was and remains highly visible and on the historical record. Unlike Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich was not busy defensively claiming his independence and running from Reagan.

He never failed Ronald Reagan or the cause both believed in so passionately. Newt never wavered, and he always led. "Ronald Reagan is the only coherent revolutionary in an administration of accommodationist advisers," Gingrich is quoted as saying in Steven F. Hayward's The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution 1980-1989.

Whatever the status of Newt Gingrich's advisers, it is crystal clear that in the narrowing choice between Gingrich and Mitt Romney, it is decidedly Gingrich whose "work product" as a card-carrying member of the Reagan Revolution is repeatedly marked with the contributions of the type that landed him in Michael Evans book of photographs of the most important players of the Reagan era.

The kind of contributions, the kind of vision and the kind of boldness that won him the respect and votes of South Carolina voters across the board.

Hayward also notes that in one instance towards the end of the administration, Gingrich discussed complaints about things left undone. Writes Hayward of the president Jack Kemp fondly nicknamed the "Oldest and Wisest":

Reagan put his arm around the young Georgia Congressman and said in his typically gentle fashion, "Well, some things you're just going to have to do after I'm gone."

Ronald Reagan is now gone.

No one, and this is perhaps important to say, is expecting Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum or anyone else to be Ronald Reagan. That is silly.

But to anyone who was present, awake, and paying attention in the 1980s -- anyone who is listening to Newt Gingrich right now -- it doesn't take much to understand that some version of those gentle words from Ronald Reagan when he put his arm around a young Newt Gingrich is in fact driving the older Newt Gingrich in this campaign.

Ronald Reagan's very last public appearance in 1994, coincidentally at the approach of Gingrich's triumph later that year in winning a GOP House, was an evening in Washington with his old friend and fellow conservative the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. In a dinner that re-united the Reagan team with their chief one last time, a small memento of the night was given to all of us. Underneath a picture of the two great conservatives Reagan and Thatcher strolling the grounds of Camp David, deep in conversation, was this reminder of conservatism from Reagan:

History comes and goes, but principles endure and inspire future generations to defend liberty, not as a gift from government, but a blessing from our Creator.

Why did Newt Gingrich win South Carolina?

Because he was one of Reagan's Lieutenants. A member of Reagan's Murderers Row of conservative stars.

It's too soon to know whether the conservative Gingrich or the moderate Romney will win this nomination. Or, yes, Santorum. Or even, if all those panicked rumblings from the Washington Establishment are true, someone not yet in the race -- a Daniels, Jindal, or Ryan.

But whatever happens, quite unlike the picture Romney is trying to paint of his prime opponent in South Carolina, Newt Gingrich was very much present and accounted for on the Reagan team. To borrow from Reagan's farewell address to the nation and the men and women who served him, Newt Gingrich wasn't just marking time. He made a difference. He helped make that City on a Shining Hill stronger. He helped make the City freer.

Quite to the contrary of the Romney message, Newt Gingrich was in fact one of Reagan's Young Lieutenants.

One of the best.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.