Newt Gingrich is striking back at a column by Elliott Abrams today, which revealed the former speaker had repeatedly criticized President Ronald Reagan during the late 1980s. The publicized comments – which headlined the Drudge Report for hours today – were especially embarrassing for Gingrich because he’s been leveraging his allegedly close relationship with Reagan to rally conservative support. (See Pete Wehner’s earlier column here:)

According to Politico, Gingrich pushed back on the column this afternoon, claiming Nancy Reagan said, “Ronnie’s torch has been passed to Newt” at an event in 1995 [emphasis added]:

Newt Gingrich, speaking with reporters after his impassioned performance in Mount Dora, Fla., defended his Reagan-praising credentials by noting that Nancy Reagan said her husband’s “torch has been passed to Newt.”

“You want to understand why I finally decided to just go and be this blunt? In 1995, Nancy Reagan at the Goldwater Institute says, ‘Ronnie’s torch has been passed to Newt. OK?” he said, via Politico’s Ginger Gibson. “Now to have somebody who is an independent in the 80s, who gave money to the Democrats in ’92 and voted in the Democratic Party for [Paul] Tsongas, to have his campaign take on a lifetime of work and lie about it, frankly I do find it infuriating.”

Gingrich is right that Nancy Reagan did say this at a 1995 Goldwater Institute ceremony honoring Reagan and Barry Goldwater, which both Newt and the former first lady spoke at. But he leaves out a few of her words in a way that slightly alters the meaning of her statement. Here’s Nancy Reagan’s comment in context, via YouTube:

“Just take a look at the extraordinary men and women who make up the 104th Congress, and, of course, this distinguished Speaker Newt Gingrich [gestures to Gingrich]. The dramatic movement of 1995 is an outgrowth of a much earlier crusade that goes back half a century. Barry Goldwater handed the torch to Ronnie. And in turn, Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt and the Republican members of Congress to keep that dream alive. I know that Ronnie believes it will succeed, and that the American people support their efforts.”

So yes, Nancy Reagan did say President Reagan handed the torch down to Newt – and the rest of the 230 Republican members of Congress that year. She doesn’t appear to be deeming Newt Gingrich the primary heir to the Reagan legacy, as he makes it sound to Politico. It was a gracious comment, but Gingrich seems to either have misunderstood or mischaracterized it.