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Gingrich's nods to history don't impress scholars

Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista talk to customers at the Hy-Vee grocery
Republican presidential candidate and former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his wife Callista talk to customers at the Hy-Vee grocery

By Jason Lange

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (Reuters) - "I'm speaking as a historian."

It's a common refrain in Newt Gingrich's speeches, a not-so-subtle reminder of the image he seeks to build as a Republican presidential candidate: that of a serious thinker whose opinions are rooted in an appreciation of the past.

From battle flags of the 18th century to colonial Africa and conflict in the Mideast, Gingrich peppers his opinions with sometimes-obscure - and controversial - references to history.

So when the silver-haired Gingrich argued last month against "activist" federal judges who he believes go beyond their authority in deciding cases, he didn't just criticize the jurists. He said they should be arrested by Capitol Police or U.S. marshals.

His comments caused an uproar among many legal analysts, scholars and lawmakers, who said such a scenario would violate the U.S. Constitution's separation of powers.

But Gingrich, who was speaker of the House of Representatives in the mid-1990s, was adamant that U.S. presidents have the right to order such arrests when liberties are threatened.

And on CBS's "Face the Nation" program he said the Federalist Papers - written in support of the U.S. Constitution in the 1780s - "say specifically (that) the weakest of the three branches (of U.S. government) is the judiciary."

It was the latest in a series of episodes in which Gingrich, a former history professor, has used historical references to support the conservative positions he has taken in his campaign to win the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.

Gingrich's tactics are beginning to draw criticism from professional historians.

Unlike some of the crowds who have cheered Gingrich's historical stories at campaign stops, the historians say they have been unimpressed with the way he has portrayed certain events.

They find some of his assertions - including a recent comment that Palestinians are an "invented" people because they historically have lacked a state - woefully lacking in context.

The Palestinians were part of the Ottoman Empire for many years, some of the historians note, adding that a serious historian would be more cautious about labeling a national identity as contrived.

After all, they say, Americans also are relative newcomers as a people, historically speaking.

"It isn't that he plays fast and loose with the facts," said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history and education at New York University. "What he does is exclude the context and the complexity in interpreting these facts."

HISTORY AS A POLITICAL WEAPON

Gingrich's view of history occasionally stirred controversy before he was a candidate for the Republican nomination.

Last year, he told National Review magazine that President Barack Obama's world view is linked to "Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior."

Through his Kenyan father, Obama almost certainly was influenced by Africa's struggle against colonial rule. But mainstream historians note that Africa's struggle also helped to inspire the U.S. civil rights movement, which shaped the world views of many Americans today.

By leaving out such context, Gingrich appeared to suggest that Obama's views were alien to the United States, which itself is an enduring example of anti-colonial behavior against the British during the American Revolution.

Gingrich's portrayal of history is "as much a political weapon as anything else," said Julian Zelizer, a presidential historian at Princeton University. "Many people (in academia) shake their heads frequently when they hear him talking about history."

Gingrich - who did not respond to a request for comment - has cited his historical knowledge to try to deflect questions of whether he lobbied for mortgage giant Freddie Mac in the years leading up to the mortgage crisis.

He says his advice to Freddie Mac about how to negotiate Washington's bureaucracy came as a "historian," not as a lobbyist.

'I JUST LOVE LISTENING TO THE GUY'

Gingrich was a professor at West Georgia College for eight years before he was elected to Congress in 1978.

He has co-written several works of fiction set during the American Revolution and Civil War. Some of the novels explore alternate realities, such as what might have happened if the Confederacy had won the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Fiction aside, some Republicans say Gingrich's knowledge of history would serve him well in debates against Obama, if he manages to win the Republican nomination.

"I just love listening to the guy," said Mark Venuti, an unemployed budget manager who was in Manchester, New Hampshire, last week to meet Gingrich's local campaign team and volunteer to help.

Gingrich was the front-runner in the Republican race recently, just ahead of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

However, Gingrich's lead has evaporated in national polls amid a barrage of Romney television ads that have cited, among other things, the ethics charges Gingrich faced as House speaker.

Gingrich, who had a reputation in Washington for counter-punching when criticized, has fired back at Romney on occasion, but vowed to continue running a positive campaign.

He wears a pin of a flag that was flown by the first U.S. president, George Washington, while leading an army against the British more than 200 years ago.

When Gingrich says U.S. courts have become too powerful, he often cites Thomas Jefferson, the main author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.

Such references have helped build his appeal to conservative Tea Party supporters who want the United States to return to its historic roots of limited government, said Stephen Farnsworth, a political communication professor at George Mason University.

But Gingrich walks a fine line between impressing voters with his smarts and turning them off by looking like Mr. Know-It-All, analysts and voters say.

David Sherman, of New Boston, New Hampshire, said he has read some of Gingrich's books and considers him "brilliant," but that he will vote for Romney in the Republican primary in that state on January 10.

Why?

Gingrich, said Sherman, is "just not a people person."

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Deering, New Hampshire; Editing by David Lindsey and Paul Simao)

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