CITIZEN NEWT: THE MAKING OF A REAGAN CONSERVATIVE
By Craig Shirley
Thomas Nelson Books, $29.99, 544 pages
At a time when our history books and biographies are being revised at warp speed by practitioners of identity politics and a generation of academics fearful of being accused of being politically incorrect and losing their jobs, Craig Shirley stands out as an honest and highly talented biographer who is also a man of conviction.
His four books on Ronald Reagan, written with deep understanding of the man himself as well the principles he personified, have been widely praised by critics both left and right for their honesty and conviction. And “Citizen Newt,” he writes, “is the only factual account of the twenty-year rise of a first-generation Reaganite,” an account, he believes, that’s long overdue.
He quotes the respected Democratic pollster John Zogby: “Operationally, what Bill Buckley was to scholarly conservatism, what Reagan was to the leadership of conservatism, what Antonin Scalia was to the legal arguments of conservatism, Newt Gingrich was to its tactical and legislative and political successes.”
Nancy Reagan, he writes, once commented that Mr. Gingrich played the key role in completing the Reagan Revolution: ”Ronnie turned that torch over to Newt and the Republican members of Congress to keep that dream alive.”
And in the elections of 1994, that’s precisely what they did, in large part by making the election national (with no national candidate) with the “Contract with America,” conceived of and masterminded by Rep. Gingrich. The contract, announced on Sept. 27 on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, “contained ten specific promises that hundreds of Republicans candidates would sign and vow to enact in their first hundred days if they gained control of Capitol Hill.”
Some called it a brilliant stroke. Others, most predictably The New York Times, called the contract a “politically preposterous prospect” and “duplicitous propaganda.”
But as a central part of what some have called the “Gingrich Revolution,” with Mr. Gingrich leading the insurgency, the Democrats lost badly, and for the first time since 1954 — four decades — Republicans won a majority in the House.
“In the narrative of the Republican Party, there have only been a handful of elections that were truly meaningful or that demonstrated a shift in American political history. Without a doubt, the election of 1994 was one of them.”
A variety of factors would contribute to the loss, among them stagnation, Democratic corruption, the personal corruption of the president himself (this was also the year of Whitewater), and even the bizarre and very public failure of his wife to get the extraordinarily complex and cumbersome “Hillarycare,” (the precursor of Obamacare) enacted.
The schematic for Hillarycare was so convoluted, writes Mr. Shirley, that one major newspaper was unable to publish it. But “The Washington Times was more successful and devoted their entire editorial page to the diagram. It terrified people as it laid out, in black and white, dozens of agencies and commissions, bureaus, departments.”
Mr. Shirley notes that “it resembled a diagram of the Stalinist system of government.” And Newt Gingrich called it a “bureaucratic monstrosity German socialism and Italian corporatism.” (As is Obamacare, some might say.)
Of course, Mrs. Clinton’s scheme was not in itself determinative. But it was symptomatic of why the pendulum had swung back. As Mr. Gingrich put it, the intent of Hillarycare was to seize control of the health care system and centralize power in Washington. And for the time, as the 1994 elections demonstrated, people had had enough of big government.
Nor was it just Republicans who felt that way. “Soon, even a liberal president would be telling Congress and the nation, ‘The era of big government is over.’ ” And while there were Reaganites like Newt Gingrich, after the 1994 election serving as speaker of the House, making decisions and guiding legislation in Washington, that would remain the case.
Mr. Gingrich no longer holds office or a governmental position. But he is still active — writing, speaking, advising public figures, among them the current president. In assessing his career and contributions, Mr. Shirley adds his name to a select list of political statesman — among them Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan — “who had an effect on the national debate for more than three decades.”
And that, Mr. Shirley concludes, “in and of itself, makes him an interesting figure, a subject worthy of an honest accounting of his rise to power and subsequent accomplishments.”
In this deeply researched biography, written in strong clear prose with wit and understanding, while never glossing over missteps and mistakes, Craig Shirley has given us that honest accounting.
• John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley).
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