Сraig Shirley has written several books on Ronald Reagan and here expands his work on the Reagan Revolution by shifting his focus to the leader of the Republican resurgence in the U.S. House that continued the movement first brought to power by Reagan’s presidential victory in 1980. Newt Gingrich created the “Contract with America” campaign which gained the GOP 54 new seats in the 1994 House elections. The Republicans thus won a majority for the first time since 1952 and Rep. Gingrich (R-GA 6th) became Speaker of the House.
This is a very detailed examination of Newt Gingrich’s early career but it is not a complete biography. Though the fourth section of the book (74 pages) is headed “The Speaker,” it only covers the events that carried him into that position, not what he did in the position. That will have to wait for a future volume, and perhaps one after that to cover Gingrich’s continued work after leaving Congress up to and including his support for President Donald Trump.
Those who want an engrossing book on Gingrich’s career as an assistant professor of history at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) – where he was also the coordinator of the environmental studies program; his initial runs for Congress in the 1970s, when Georgia was still a “yellow dog” Dixiecrat state; his building of a conservative caucus of other young upstarts and his eventual move into the GOP leadership ranks will find this book very useful and enjoyable.
In his Prologue, Shirley asserts on page xvi that “only the ignorant believe that [Edmund] Burke is the father of American conservatism.” As Edwin Meese III wrote for the Heritage Foundation, “Leading the conservative intellectual movement in its early days, and serving as a ‘philosophical shepherd’ for its expansion into subsequent phases, was Russell Kirk.” Kirk placed the origins of modern conservatism with Edmund Burke whose Reflections on the Revolution in France laid out the differences between Right and Left that hold until today. Indeed, the very terms Right and Left come from those who participated in the French Revolution. Ronald Reagan was influenced by Kirk’s work, especially The Conservative Mind, and awarded him the Presidential Citizens Medal.
Shirley posits that “American conservatism takes its inspiration from John Locke, Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” Paine and Jefferson embraced the French Revolution, at least in its early days. And while Jefferson wrote the Declaration, he had nothing to do with the Constitution, which was written mainly by men with views much more consistent with those of Burke. And the “debate” between Burke’s Reflections and Paine’s The Rights of Man is crucial to understanding political philosophy.
Shirley notes that the American Revolution was different than the French because it was essentially conservative, which it would not have been had it followed Paine’s wild notions. The colonists wanted national independence, not a transformation of society. Shirley also recounts Gingrich’s Baptist beliefs, including his conduct of Bible studies; things Paine dismissed as unimportant in the preservation of a moral society.
Shirley covers in detail Republican in-fighting in support of his contention that Gingrich has always been at odds with the GOP Establishment. The reader will learn who was allied with whom, how friendships were made and broken, and how scandals and the “politics of personal destruction” were used both within and between the parties to gain power. Unfortunately, one will not learn much about the details of the legislative arguments; why people took this or that position or what various measures were supposed to accomplish and whether they worked. This is a journalistic enterprise, not a policy wonk study. I found this a rather incomplete tale, especially on the battle over tax policy and the Gulf War in 1989-90, which took place when I was the Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Tennessee (running against then incumbent Al Gore).
Shirley makes Gingrich’s opposition to President George H.W. Bush’s decision to break his “no new taxes” pledge and accept tax hikes as part of a “grand bargain” with the Democrats, a major turning point in the Georgian lawmaker’s career. As House GOP Whip, Gingrich’s task would have been to round up votes to support “his” President, but instead he was the only member of the House GOP leadership to oppose the plan. His fervent criticism undermined support in the party base for Bush’s re-election and has poisoned his relations with the Bush family (and its minions like Karl Rove) ever since.
Splits within the party, which Shirley documents so well, are not just a matter for historians. The patterns continue today. Gingrich, for example, wanted “to exempt necessary defense and social programs from the automatic cuts heading their way under Gramm-Rudman.” The same need was ignored in the Budget Control Act of 2011, which placed half the burden of spending cuts on the Pentagon even though defense spending makes up less than 20 percent of outlays. This was the work of Speaker John Boehner, who accepted President Barack Obama’s “sequestration” idea.
Rep. Boehner (R-OH) was one of those who plotted to overthrow Speaker Gingrich. As Shirley notes, “Most of the anticipated savings would come out of Defense” in the deal the first President Bush made to trade spending cuts for tax increases. As a candidate, I had trouble explaining why Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announced cuts in military force levels just after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. Many of the units that came home in triumph after liberating Kuwait had to be disbanded. And since 2011, the military has again been hollowed out even as our troops remain in action thanks to Boehner’s blunder.
Shirley’s biography of Newt Gingrich’s early career is jam packed with inside information on the personalities involved. It is an important contribution to the literature on the period covered.
William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.