Gingrich and the House Historian

January 12, 1995

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich showed acute political instincts by firing his brand new, personally selected House of Representatives historian, Christina Jeffrey, as soon as it was revealed that she had once said some goofy things about teaching the Holocaust.

Though she now denies it, her language suggested that junior high school students should hear the Nazi and Ku Klux Klan "point of view" for "balance."

By promptly getting rid of her, the speaker made a two-day story out of what could have been a long, drawn-out and debilitating argument over a peripheral matter. President Clinton could profit by this example of damage control. (President Nixon could have, too. A few quick firings when the Watergate story first broke, and that might well have been the end of that.)

There is another dimension to this story which should not be overlooked: The House of Representatives needs a good Historian's Office. As a former history professor, Newt Gingrich knows that, and as a long-time member of the House, he knows it hasn't had one. And he knows -- or should know -- two important reasons for that are:

1) Most of the speaker's fellow Republicans have been opposed to the funds needed to establish a competent professional staff for the office. (To Representative Gingrich's credit, he urged Republicans to support the creation of the office a decade ago.)

2) A heavy, partisan, political hand interferred with the professionals who were there in recent years (until they were fired by Mr. Gingrich as soon as he had the authority).

The heavy hand belonged to Heather Foley, the wife of Speaker Tom Foley. Speaker Gingrich's initial choice of Mrs. Jeffrey seems to reflect a desire to do to the historian's office from the right what Mrs. Foley had been doing to it from the left. Mrs. Jeffrey's views on how to teach about the Holocaust aside, her credentials are clearly those of an ideologue, not of a historian or archivist.

What the House needs is a respected professional historian or archivist with a good reputation as a scholar of American politics and government, especially concerning the House of Representatives. It would also be a good idea to select someone with no professional need or desire to publish extensively. Establishing and managing an archive and a research-oriented historical office for an institution as old and with as many former members as the House is a full-time job.

At a moment in time when the House of Representatives may very well be about to enter a period of greater power relative to the other principal components of the federal government than it has achieved in nearly a century, it deserves a respected Historian's Office.

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