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Gingrich: a student of history, determined to influence it

By Trip Gabriel

New York Times

POSTED:
LAST UPDATED: 03:47 a.m. HST, Nov 29, 2011



Newt Gingrich is a historian. He earned a Ph.D. in history. If you've forgotten, he'll remind you.

During a six-candidate forum in Iowa recently, Gingrich dropped in references to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Capt. John Smith's leadership of Jamestown, the French Revolution and, as a bonus, the Latin root of "secular."

A few days earlier, as guests at a fundraising breakfast forked into slabs of coffeecake, Gingrich told a lengthy anecdote about John Quincy Adams.

And in New Hampshire before that, he made reference at a Tea Party forum to the Louisiana Purchase, Thomas Jefferson's abolition of federal judgeships and, again, the Northwest Ordinance of 1787.

Gingrich taught college history before entering politics, and his historical references on the campaign trail are such a feature of his public remarks as to be nearly a rhetorical tic. The references strike some as evidence that Gingrich is the smartest candidate in the room -- and others that he is a man determined to let you know how much he knows.

In an election season rife with factual misstatements, deliberate and otherwise, Gingrich sometimes seems to stand out for exhibiting an excess of knowledge. It is hard to imagine him not knowing that the Battle of Lexington and Concord took place in Massachusetts, not New Hampshire, where Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota located it this year.

But in some ways Gingrich seems not just to know history, but to think of himself very self-consciously as part of it, and not always in a small way. In an interview with The New York Times in 2009, he said he subscribed to the historian Arnold J. Toynbee's theory of "departure and return," the notion that certain great leaders must endure a long political exile before returning to power. He indicated that Charles de Gaulle, the French general who became president only after years out of power, was a role model.

"Some people say he sounds arrogant. I see it as confidence," said Josh Byrnes, an Iowa state representative who threw his support to Gingrich after he spoke at his daughter's middle school. "I think what Newt's doing, he's using historical lessons to take on this current situation we're in."

Gingrich's deep identification with this role was highlighted recently when he said in a debate that Freddie Mac, the home mortgage giant, had hired him as a "historian," not a lobbyist, as it fought off government regulators before the financial crisis.

When it came out that Gingrich had earned as much as $1.8 million from Freddie Mac, he was mocked by liberal critics as the best-paid historian ever.

Fellow historians generally are pleased that Gingrich brings history into the national conversation, even if some dispute his insights.

Last year, he said he agreed with a controversial essay linking President Barack Obama to a "Kenyan, anti-colonial" world view. On Conservative Net, a listserv of conservative-leaning historians, professor Lawrence Squeri of East Stroudsburg State wrote the other day, "I always did feel that Gingrich should have stayed in academia, conducting seminars that would make students rave or fume and send impassioned posts to the Rate My Professors website."

Gingrich has been out of power since quitting Congress under pressure in 1998, but has surged in recent polls, and he is fond of citing historical crucibles to dramatize the stakes he sees for the 2012 election. In South Carolina this month, he said the country was facing a "choice comparable, I think, to 1860 and it may be comparable in some ways to 1788," a brainy reference, apparently, to the year the Constitution was debated and ratified by the states.

Gingrich reminded the same audience, "I studied American history" and offered a lengthy back story to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. "In 1858, Steven Douglas was the most famous man in the United States Senate," he began.

The Civil War era is one he often comes back to. He has written with a co-author three counterfactual historical novels, beginning with "Gettysburg," in which Pickett's charge succeeds and the Lost Cause is redeemed.

"Every politician believes he can be president," said Richard Brookhiser, the author of biographies of James Madison and George Washington, who has met Gingrich. "Because Gingrich is also interested in history, he has it to an unusual degree, so naturally he sees himself in this progression of titans."

While stumping, he frequently mentions his academic career, often to contrast his Main Street credentials teaching at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) with Obama's elite education at Columbia and Harvard Law School.

Gingrich's Ph.D. is from Tulane. His dissertation was on "Belgian Education Policy in the Congo: 1945-1960."

After leaving teaching, he was elected to Congress on his third try in 1978.

As House speaker, a history course he taught by satellite television was the focus of an ethics investigation in which he was fined $300,000.

He was found to have misused money from a political action committee to underwrite the course, called "Renewing American Civilization." During the investigation, a document emerged from the prominent conservative scholar James Q. Wilson offering feedback on the course.

"It is bland, vague, hortatory and lacking in substance," Wilson wrote about a chapter he had been asked to review by a Gingrich aide.

"Historically, it does not represent Adam Smith correctly," he added. "The Founders are also treated somewhat cavalierly. It is true that George Washington spoke often of the importance of virtue, but he didn't write the Constitution; Madison and a few others did."

Professional historians are divided in their assessments of Gingrich's analysis of the past.

He has called for the abolition of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which many Republicans detest for its liberal rulings, citing the precedent of Jefferson's repeal of the Judiciary Act of 1801, which eliminated some federal courts.

"If something happened once 200 years ago, to what extent is that really a precedent?" said Geoffrey Kabaservice, the author of a coming book, "Rule and Ruin," about the decline of Republican moderates since the 1950s.

"My problem with Gingrich as an historian," Kabaservice added, "is that history's a big grab bag. You can find precedents for anything you want in there. Gingrich's approach to history is like his approach to politics -- sloppy, undisciplined, occasionally brilliant, but more often missing the mark."

Sean Wilentz, the Princeton historian, said in an interview, "I have a weakness for any public figure who talks about history in any way that is at all serious."

"I find the speaker is serious," said Wilentz, who has published books about Andrew Jackson and the age of Reagan. "I don't find him profound in any way."






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