Matt Drudge links to several stories and videos (see here, here, here and here) highlighting Newt Gingrich’s past criticisms of President Reagan. This line of attack has clearly enraged Gingrich, who argues that he was certainly more of a Reaganite than Mitt Romney ever was.
What Gingrich says is true, but in some respects it’s beside the point. What these episodes reveal about Gingrich isn’t that he’s not a conservative; it’s that during the course of his career he’s been intemperate and erratic. He views himself as almost alone when it comes to understanding the world-historical moment he always seems to be living in. He has the courage that others, including Ronald Reagan, lacked. He possesses the insights that others, including Ronald Reagan, were deprived of. Gingrich’s comments were not those of a “loving critic,” to use a phrase from Madison. The former House speaker used words that were lacerating, extreme, and at times insulting.
One Gingrich quote is particularly revealing and hasn’t, to my knowledge, yet been highlighted. But in Steven Hayward’s wonderful book, The Age of Reagan: The Conservative Counterrevolution, Hayward quotes Gingrich as telling the Wall Street Journal that Reagan was “in some danger of becoming another Jimmy Carter.” That is about as wicked a rhetorical blow as one Republican could level against another. And this statement came after Reagan’s first term, in which he achieved historically important reforms.
Hayward recounts one White House meeting late in the second term, after Gingrich laid out complaints about important things the administration had left undone. President Reagan put his arm around the young Georgia congressman, according to Hayward, and said in his typically gentle fashion, “Well, some things you’re just going to have to do after I’m gone.”
This exchange is an illuminating one. Ronald Reagan was not only an unusually principled politician; he was also unusually well-grounded. He was at once idealistic and realistic. He had the ability to do more than give speeches; he had the wisdom to govern well and effectively. He was a man in a hurry, but he was never a man in a rush. There was something deeply reassuring and calming about the man from Dixon, Illinois. He was a conservative, not a revolutionary, in spirit, in temperament, and in his essential approach to life. That was one of his many virtues, and something Gingrich has lacked his entire political career.
That is why some of us, even as we’re willing to acknowledge Gingrich’s strengths and contributions during the years, believe he’s fundamentally lacking when it comes to the character–public and private–necessary to be president.