A flattering account of a meeting earlier this week in which former House Speaker Newt Gingrich met with a group of 63 conservative leaders is prompting angry reactions among at least some of the attendees.
The account appears today on Richard Viguerie's Conservative HQ web site and is headlined with a claim that Gingrich received a "standing ovation" at the end of the gathering.
"That wasn't a standing ovation, we were all getting up to leave," said an attendee who requested anonymity. "It was a very skeptical audience, there were at least three very tense exchanges. It was anything but an endorsement meeting."
Another attendee who also asked that his name not be used described the meeting's atmosphere in similar terms, saying it was "very tense."
The Conservative HQ story described Gingrich's exchange with Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli in terms suggesting it was anything but tense:
"One of the earliest and toughest questions came from Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli who noted many of the ideas Speaker Gingrich had championed seemed like they might end-up growing government. 'How can we be sure, what’s the restraint on you that these ideas won’t end up being more big government?' asked Cuccinelli.
"Speaker Gingrich replied to laughter that 'there’s nothing to restrain a President from doing something dumb, but I trust the people in this room to tell me if that is the case.' But then he noted more seriously that, 'I’m a Federalist. I look to the Federalist Papers and the Constitution to guide me and restrain government.'"
But an attendee told The Examiner that "Cuccinelli had five followup questions and it was like a prosecutor cross-examining a defendant. Newt kept trying to change the subject, but Cuccinelli wouldn't back down."
Another heated exchange occurred when the American Conservative Union's Donald Devine challenged Gingrich's 2003 support of President George W. Bush's prescription drug benefit.
"Devine said 'we had the votes to beat it, but then you went to the Republican Study Committee the day before the vote and turned it around. Now we have you to thank for the third biggest entitlement in the budget, so how can you ask us to support you" according to one of the attendees.
In response to Devine, according to the attendee, Gingrich argued that Sen. John Kerry, D-MA, would have defeated Bush in the 2004 election had the new Medicare drug benefit not been pushed by the president and approved by a Republican Congress.
The Examiner has asked for comment from Cuccinelli, Devine.
The attendees said things became particularly heated when Myron Ebell, director of energy and global warming policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, challenged Gingrich on climate change and other environmental issues, calling him "an unapologetic defender of big-government conservativism."
Gingrich pointed out that he "was in Congress when the Cuyahoga River caught on fire," and thus supports strong government programs to protect the environment.
Ebell confirmed in an email the contentious nature of his exchange with Gingrich during the meeting, saying it was "the longest back and forth" of the meeting.
Ebell said that during his exchange he argued that Gingrich's 2007 book, A Contract With Earth," illustrates what he sees as the main problem with the former House Speaker because it was "goofy, fuzzy, slightly dim, low on content, lots of bold new vision blather, and talk of transcending the political debate through technological fantasy."
A fourth attendee, who requested anonymity, said there were tense moments but suggested the meeting wasn't as dramatic as some are claiming:
"One conservative showed anger and raised his voice at Newt, several people expressed frustration with Newt, but on the whole, I'd call it more candid than tense. Gingrich, certainly, never showed anger. He challenged people, and was a bit defensive at times, but there was nothing conservatives haven't said about him in public."
George Rasley, author of the Conservative HQ post, offered a similar observation, saying "most of the people there have known Newt Gingrich for years, so for most participants it was not like there were any surprises in the package.
"Anyone who was against him was probably not swayed by his defense or mea culpas for his deviations from movement conservative positions, but I would say he made a few converts merely by requesting the meeting and being willing to show-up and take no holds barred questions."
As I suspected it would, the Gingrich meeting has sparked more folks on the Right to pick up quill and ink well - okay, laptop and web browser - to offer their thoughts about the procedings and what they might tell us about the political future.
The latest of these is Mark Fitzgibbons, who was present at the meeting and is a regular contributor to The Washington Examiner, frequently on topics having to do with the limits of government. He and Richard Viguerie are co-authors of the absolutely-essential-reading, The Law That Governs Government: Reclaiming The Constitution From Usurpers And Society’s Biggest Lawbreaker.
In a post on Conservative HQ concerning the Gingrich meeting, Fitzgibbons points to the original constitutional cross-roads represented by Alexander Hamilton, the most frequent contributor to The Federalist Papers, and James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" and the nation's fourth president, succeeding Thomas Jefferson.
"Newt later said that he is a Federalist more in the mold of Alexander Hamilton, and even indicated by a nod of the head that Cuccinelli and others in the room may have views more like the Anti-Federalists such as Thomas Jefferson.
"Given Speaker Gingrich’s expertise in American history, his choice of Hamilton is no mere throwaway clue to how he would govern.
"In fact, the modern day split within the Republican Party in some ways resembles the difference between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, except that America is much closer to socialism than the Federalists’ vision. The difference between big-government Republicans and small government conservatives is that big-government Republicans tolerate -- even abet -- socialism."
You can - and should - read the rest of Mark's post here.