Craig Shirley. Citizen Newt: The Making of a Reagan Conservative. Nelson Books, 2017. See here to purchase the book.
Craig Shirley is renowned for his books about Ronald Reagan. I first heard of him when I was watching a panel on CSPAN2. The panelists were discussing Ronald Reagan’s stance towards the New Deal. One author argued that Reagan supported it, Shirley contended that Reagan opposed it, and another panelist said that Reagan supported some parts and was critical of other parts. Shirley’s arguments on Reagan’s stance towards the New Deal were not very impressive, but he did raise interesting considerations. For example, he argued that Reagan’s liberal policy on immigration was due, in part, to the Cold War, as Reagan did not want to look repressive, as the USSR.
Citizen Newt is about Newt Gingrich, who served as Speaker of the House during the 1990’s. The introduction is about Gingrich’s childhood, and it touches briefly on his education. The rest of the book goes from his first race for U.S. Congress (which he lost), to the widespread triumph of the GOP in national and state elections in 1994. The Republicans took control of the House of Representatives and Newt Gingrich became Speaker.
The introduction was the closest look in the book at Newt Gingrich the human being. The rest of the book did not explore as much what made Gingrich tick, personally-speaking, though it occasionally commented on his divorce from his first wife, Jackie. Rather, the rest of the book focused on his public moves and persona. And that was actually pretty entertaining!
The book is a compelling political drama. Shirley narrates Gingrich’s political iconoclasm against Republicans and Democrats, and the conflicts among the powers-that-be. Shirley also relates the past to the present, as he talks about people who are household names now, but were just starting out back then. Occasionally, Shirley mentions incidents in which political figures acted contrary to expectation. Shirley seems to write more from a conservative perspective, but the book does not read like a piece of hagiographical propaganda. Shirley respects Gingrich and sometimes defends him, and he refers to Gingrich’s political talents, such as Gingrich’s gift at extemporaneous speaking. Yet, Shirley is honest about when he thinks that Gingrich made a foolish move. Shirley also does not paint a narrative in which Republicans are the heroes and Democrats are the villains. His account of Tip O’Neill is glowing.
On Gingrich’s relationship with conservatism, Shirley acknowledges nuance. While he depicts Gingrich as principled, overall, he chronicles times when Gingrich waffled or embraced positions for political expediency (i.e., protectionism). Shirley talks about the evolution of Gingrich’s political perspective, as Gingrich went from being a Rockefeller Republican to becoming one of the leaders of the conservative movement in Congress. Gingrich was relatively progressive on racial issues throughout his time in Congress, as he received votes from many African-Americans in his district and championed a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr. and sanctions against South Africa. Moreover, Shirley mentions the divisions among conservatives themselves, on such issues as flag burning.
The book could have used more of a look at Newt Gingrich the person, while attempting to explore what motivated Gingrich’s stances and political moves. Still, the book, as it stands, is a compelling read, and it whets my appetite for other books by Shirley, and political books in general.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers. My review is honest!