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Book Review: Citizen Newt by Craig Shirley

It is always a pleasure to review a book written by and about a friend and I was especially pleased to receive a review copy of Craig Shirley’s biography of Newt Gingrich, Citizen Newt, The Making of a Reagan Conservative.

And it is even more fun to review a book where one gets a favorable mention or two, as Craig Shirley gave me in some of the early chapters of the book, but the mutual friendships and favorable mentions aren’t the reason I recommend Citizen Newt – rather it is for the important lessons for today that I found in the same chapters Citizen Newtwhere Craig Shirley detailed my early association with and support for then little-known conservative House backbencher Newt Gingrich.

It is lost to history in the misty-eyed canonization of President Reagan that, especially during his first term, conservatives – often led by Newt Gingrich – were frequently at odds with the White House and frustrated with how Reagan set his priorities and his choice of James Baker III as his White House Chief of Staff.

In Chapter 7, “Off Course,” Shirley recounts one of the battles that Newt and I joined to try to keep President Reagan true to his promises on taxes.

Newt called President Reagan’s support for the “Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 1982,” also known as TEFRA, “the opening round of a fight over the soul and future of the Republican Party” and very publicly took on President Reagan for supporting one of the largest tax increases in US history and he wasn’t bashful about saying that something was not quite right at the White House.

Other conservatives took up the cudgel and to scare the White House into making a U-turn and withdrawing support for the tax increase some even went so far as to suggest that maybe Jack Kemp should challenge Reagan in 1984.

We conservatives were convinced that James Baker was undermining the Reagan agenda from within. We thought then and now (despite the subsequent testimony of Ed Meese and others to the contrary) that Baker had a negative effect on efforts to advance the conservative agenda Reagan had campaigned on.

Citizen Newt doesn’t settle that argument, but it does remind conservatives that personnel is policy and that the evidence of establishment Republican perfidy with regard to Reagan’s conservative agenda is abundant.

Citizen Newt also reminds us that back in 1982 Newt understood something that many others didn’t quite comprehend: “Reagan was never going to be as conservative as the movement wanted him to be,” a lesson that might be profitably applied to the Trump White House as well.

With that comment in mind, President Trump’s conservative – populist supporters who are convinced that Reince Priebus, General John Kelly and General H.R. McMaster and other establishment Republicans and Democrats in the White House staff and Cabinet are obstructing Trump’s campaign agenda could learn a lot from the early chapters of Citizen Newt.

Just as conservatives outside of the White House often had to act as a third force to remind President Reagan of what our priorities were – and to overcome internal staff opposition to the Reagan campaign agenda – those who voted for the Trump campaign agenda of building the wall on our southern border, declaring Iran in violation of the Obama nuclear weapons deal, getting tough on illegal immigration, and ending the dangerous importation of millions of anti-constitutional Muslim immigrants would do well to adopt the tactics of the New Right outlined in Citizen Newt.

Another of the great strengths of Citizen Newt is to remind readers that the more things change in Washington, the more they remain the same.

As publisher of the magazine Conservative Digest, in the early days of his congressional career I frequently provided Newt Gingrich with a platform to promote his ideas, and especially to attack the Democratic majority on Capitol Hill that then constituted Washington’s self-appointed permanent ruling class:

The Democratic Party is now controlled by a coalition of liberal activists, corrupt big city machines, labor union bosses and a million dollars from tax-payers per election cycle to buy invulnerability. When Republicans have the courage to point out just how unrepresentative, and even weird, liberal values are, we gain votes… Fear and corruption now stalk the House of Representatives in a way we’ve never witnessed before in our history.

The Awan brothers’ bank fraud, computer theft and hacking scandal, the Democrats’ bizarre support for transsexuals in the military, their demand that men be allowed into woman’s locker rooms and bathrooms, the total breakdown of the rule of law in Democrat-run cities, the vast sums of money flowing from George Soros and the Democracy Alliance into Democrat campaign coffers and Far Left not-for-profit political organizations eerily mirror the political environment Newt Gingrich railed against on the pages of Conservative Digest back in 1981.

Unfortunately, what conservatives lack today is a leader and spokesman with Newt Gingrich’s zest for combat and unerring aim for the Democrats’ political weaknesses.

Citizen Newt isn’t a personal biography of Newt Gingrich; those interested in the details of Gingrich’s personal life will be disappointed, however, as a political biography it is full of lessons for the student and practitioner of conservative politics.

Newt Gingrich’s influence on the conservative movement has been and continues to be profound. Those who wish to understand the development of the conservative movement since 1980, and who wish to learn conservative politics from one of its most accomplished thinkers and astute practitioners should buy Citizen Newt and study it, as it will undoubtedly become viewed as not just a compelling political biography, but one of the foundational texts of modern conservative political organization.

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