Author and historian Craig Shirley talked about his new book Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative on Friday’s edition of Breitbart News Daily.
“You are hard-pressed, in the 230-year history of the American republic, to come up with the name of a political leader who wasn’t president who has had as long-lasting an impact on the national political debate as Newt Gingrich,” Shirley told SiriusXM host Alex Marlow.
“Henry Clay, yeah, 20 years. William Jennings Bryan, yeah, about 20 years. But Gingrich burst on the national political scene in the late Seventies, and here we are some 30 or 40 years later, and he’s still relevant. He’s still advising presidents. His opinion is still sought-after. He’s still giving major speeches and writing books, and doing documentaries, and still very much relevant to what is going on currently in American politics,” he said.
“That in and of itself is remarkable, his longevity is remarkable,” he observed. “Nixon lasted a long time, but he was a president. Reagan lasted a long time, long before they were president, going back to the Forties, but again he was president. That, in and of itself, I think makes it worthy of a study.”
Shirley said he was also motivated to write his book because “liberals can’t be trusted to record conservative history.”
“They’re interested in pushing an agenda instead of reporting the facts,” he noted. “Of the books that are in my bibliography that I went through on Newt Gingrich, virtually none of which was useful to me, just about every one of them was written by a liberal, and every one of them was rancid, error-filled, agenda-driven, in every way, shape or form. They were not reporting on the facts of Newt Gingrich. They were reporting on their own personal ideology.”
Shirley perceived a similar danger with Ronald Reagan “being reported out of history” and re-defined as irrelevant by left-wing historians, although he hastened to add that Reagan enjoyed the protection of other fine historians, such as Steven Hayward, Kiron Skinner, and Paul Kengor.
“Together we did what we had to do to protect the Reagan legacy. We need to protect the conservative legacy. Everything about conservatism is important. Therefore, it’s worthy of recording for American history,” he declared.
Shirley agreed with Marlow that Gingrich has a unique talent for inspiring thoughtful debate with provocative proposals for great achievements, such as traveling to Mars or establishing a permanent base on the Moon. Shirley said Gingrich told him such projects are “extensions of America’s manifest destiny, and part of American greatness,” far more than the ill-conceived nation-building projects that have cost Americans so much, with such little return.
“Whether it’s opening up the West, or whether it’s the Trans-Atlantic railroad, or whether it’s the Industrial Revolution, defeating the Great Depression, defeating Nazi Germany, defeating the Soviet Union and winning the Cold War – these are all expressions of part of what has made America great,” Shirley said of the Gingrich perspective.
“You may disagree with it, but it is based in rational thought. He believes the nation needs missions to keep going forward and to keep progressing,” Shirley said.
Marlow expressed admiration for the remarkable energy Gingrich displays at 71 years of age, an attribute Shirley noted Reagan also possessed.
“People think he went back to California and now he had Alzheimer’s and passed away, but that’s not true,” he said of Reagan. “He left office when he was 77, and his last entry into his diary of President of the United States in January of 1989 was, ‘Tomorrow I stop being president, then back to California and start up a new life.’ The start of a new life! He’s 77 years old!”
“That indomitable optimism, that emphasis on the future, is something unique to people like Gingrich and Reagan. They’re inexhaustible,” Shirley testified. “They get up and they just have a bottomless well of energy to keep going forward.”
“Reagan opened a library, Reagan wrote two more books, Reagan traveled the world, Reagan gave major speeches. He went to Warsaw and 100,000 steel workers there sang to him, they sang ‘may you live a thousand years.’ He was standing up there with President Lech Walesa in Warsaw,” he recalled.
“He was constantly on the go for the rest of his life, until he was finally brought down by the Alzheimer’s, but it was only at the very end. Even after the Alzheimer’s, he was still active. He was still writing, and going to the office, and giving speeches, and golf, and going for rides on blimps, and things like that. It was quite remarkable,” he said of Reagan.
Shirley saw Gingrich as a spiritually-inspired American conservative in the Reagan tradition.
“He believes that whether the edict comes from the Bible, American populism, the American Constitution, man’s destiny is to be free and independent, unencumbered by the State. He believes that, just as Reagan did, just as Jefferson did, just as most of the framers and founders did, as you and I do,” Shirley told Marlow.
He also cited legendary conservative philosopher Russell Kirk’s declaration that “from the time I began to think, and the moment I began to reason, I have always been a conservative.” He said Gingrich sees conservatism as intellectualism and liberalism as anti-intellectual – “quite frankly, silly and stupid” – despite its pretensions to the contrary.
“That’s why he infuriated his liberal opponents – because he let them know he thought they were fools and stuck in an ideology that was a failing ideology for man, and for America,” Shirley said. “He let them know he enjoyed winning. This is what infuriated the left so much. He didn’t just win and was humble about it. He won, and then he sort of lorded over them. He thought it was to a larger point, which was to make the point that conservatism is the superior ideology, and conservatism is the intellectual ideology.”
Shirley said Gingrich offered him unfettered access when approaching him to write Citizen Newt.
“He was thinking about his place in history, and he’d seen what had been written about him,” he explained. “I agreed, but it was under certain strict conditions, which was that he would have no input into the content, he couldn’t edit the content, he had to be available to me for almost unlimited access, as his papers, as his friends. But he had no input whatsoever – good, bad, or indifferent – into the final work.”
Work on the book began seven years ago with Sunday morning meetings at the Basilica, where Newt’s wife Callista was practicing in the choir.
“It was a pretty exhaustive store of knowledge that I gained from him,” Shirley said. “Then I interviewed members of his family, both of his daughters, interviewed former staffers, interviewed Bob Walker, and former President Bush, Dick Cheney, Bob Dole. They were all very helpful, and they were also very frank. You could tell the animosity still existed between Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich, even years later, even though Bob Dole is in his late eighties or early nineties.”
Marlow asked what inspired the title “Citizen Newt.” Shirley pronounced it an excellent question and pointed back to the Founders’ belief in citizen legislators for the answer.
“In Philadelphia in 1787, it was Citizen Franklin and Citizen Adams and Citizen Madison, because they were heirs not only to the Renaissance or the Enlightenment but also to ancient Rome, which advanced the idea that the citizen was the most important component in the creation of any governments,” he pointed out. “The citizen is more important than any elected official, anybody with money, with privilege, with station, anything else like that. It was a bottom-up concept of government, which is what we have in America today.”
“Article I of the Constitution created the House of Representatives because the Framers believed in the wisdom of the American people. They actually created the House before they created the presidency or the Senate,” he noted.
“Reagan always called himself a citizen politician. Reagan rightly believed that American conservatism is based on the individual and on the citizen, because they are the most important element in the construction of our current form of government,” said Shirley.
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