At the presidential debate in Michigan last week, moderator John Harwood asked Newt Gingrich what, exactly, he’d done to earn $300,000 from Freddie Mac in 2006. “I offered advice,” said Gingrich. “And my advice as a historian, when they walked in and said to me, ‘We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that's what the government wants us to do,’ as I said to them at the time, ‘This is a bubble. This is insane. This is impossible.’ It turned out, unfortunately, I was right.” It turns out, unfortunately, that Gingrich did more than offer sound historical advice. As Bloomberg reported this week, Gingrich’s job also seemed to be to get the right Freddie Mac executives in the room with the right Republicans.
Nonetheless, the idea of Gingrich as a historian, a selfless intellectual who is habitually right about policy, is awfully attractive. Here are some primary documents that shed light on his role.
2006: He Foresees the Housing Crisis
From the diary of Richard Syron, CEO of Freddie Mac:
April 14: Had a pretty disturbing meeting with Newt Gingrich. Well, weird or disturbing. Maybe both. He showed up five minutes early. He busted right past my secretary, who came running after him, said she tried to stop him but he wouldn’t slow down. Gingrich looked bad—sweaty, like he’d just run from his office to mine. He opened a briefcase and a bunch of documents exploded right out of it, charts and equations, and one with “CDOs!” scribbled on it in red ink over and over again.
“Richard,” said Gingrich, “you asked for my advice as a historian. In that capacity, I’ve reverse-engineered the causes of the South Sea bubble, and I’ve translated some previously unread documents from the 17th-century tulip bubble in the Netherlands.”
“Wow, doing all of that translation must have been difficult,” I said.
“Not for me,” said Gingrich. “What I found was this: You cannot sell a product that people cannot afford, and bet on the supply of the product constantly increasing. That’s the problem you have on your hands. This is a universalizable concept that only becomes clear after close, serious study.”
“What are you talking about?” I asked. “We are now making loans to people who have no credit history and have no record of paying back anything, but that's what the government wants us to do.”
“This is a bubble!” said Gingrich. “This is insane. This is impossible!”
He grabbed a pen from my desk and started to scrawl out some chart describing how we were backing loans that were being chopped up into worthless investments, but right then, our security guards bolted in and grabbed Gingrich by the arms.
“You don’t understand!” he said, as he was dragged out the door, knocking over the vase that Dick Fuld had just sent over as a gift. “We’re going to lose the future! As a historian …”
2003: He Anticipates Obamacare
Unofficial transcript, November 2003 meeting between Gingrich and House Republicans:
I understand that many of you are uncomfortable with the concept of a Medicare prescription benefit program. Frankly, it might seem like a betrayal of conservative principles. But here, I would remind you of what Churchill said, that “to improve is to change, but to be perfect is to change often.” And that calls to mind something else that Churchill said, that “a fanatic is one who can't change his mind and won't change the subject.” Actually, you should just vote for this bill and then read Churchill. He’s good.
If I leave you with anything, however, it would be this: Be considerate when you deal with health care. It would be the height of stupidity to pass this bill then fail to reform health care any further, because if Americans feel that the system is in a crisis state, you’d run the risk of a Democrat winning the presidency in five years and pushing through a mandate for health insurance, which would clearly be fundamentally unconstitutional. So, definitely watch out for that.
2001: He Advises Microsoft
Date: Fri, February 18, 2001 at 3:55 PM
Subject: RE: Washington
Bill—Plane landed, heading in now. Weirdest meeting I had was at the Chamber of Commerce. They hired Newt Gingrich as a consultant. We mostly talked at the cocktail reception, when he drew a diagram of the new Intel chip from memory—good trick, except someone stained the napkin with a vodka tonic. After that Newt buttonholed me, tried to convince me that we should develop an MP3 player. I said price point was too high, design clunky. Guy has no tact! He said he was going to take the design to Apple if we passed:
Dumb idea. Who’s gonna pay $400 for that? Anyway, will be on call re: Windows XP at 5.
1979: He Writes to Ronald Reagan
Thank you for passing along the draft of your campaign platform. Having run two losing congressional campaigns before finally winning—with your help!—I think I can offer sound advice on what appeals to voters sick of Jimmy Carter but unsure where to go.
One problem. There’s a certain appealing simplicity to a presidential campaign based on a two-plank platform of keeping the Panama canal and simplifying school-lunch standards. I just think you need a bigger idea to tie it all together. Have you thought about tax cuts?
1957: He Writes to Detective Comics
With Detective Comics #244, I would argue that you’ve brought bold, fundamental change to the way Batman fights crime. It wasn’t clear at first why an unfamiliar character would demonstrate the use of a boomerang to the Caped Crusader. Why would he need a fancy, foreign toy when he has the bat hook? We shouldn’t have been surprised when Batman, inspired, developed a “batarang.” It was a telling example of how American innovation can engineer solutions to any problems that present themselves.
I would advise the authors on three additional steps they might take. No. 1 would be to focus more on Batman’s detective work, and less on team-ups with other heroes, which run the risk of bringing in a needless science fiction element that detracts from the character’s strength. Batman should be grim, and gritty. No. 2 would be would be to seek a partnership with some movie studio and adapt the story into a film with one or two villains—possibly the Joker, played by an actor we wouldn’t expect in the role. No. 3 would be to create merchandise, such as collectable figures and toys, to take advantage of the publicity.
Also, the Batmobile should look cooler. Please see the enclosed blueprints.
A loyal reader,
Newt Gingrich, 14