House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) barreled through Ventura County on Friday, stopping in Westlake Village to raise almost $100,000 for Congressman Elton Gallegly, then invoking the legacy of Ronald Reagan in a speech at the presidential library near Simi Valley.
"He is one of the great figures of American history," Gingrich said of Reagan after touring the library and meeting with Nancy Reagan.
The Speaker said he tries to follow Reagan's example of pleasant humor, optimism and cheerful persistence.
"You have to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable," Gingrich said. "At times I have failed and I have not been a good model."
When Gingrich does temper his temper, it's thanks in part to Reagan, Gingrich said.
"I would guess at least five times a day I'll think something about the Gipper and think how would he have done that," he said.
His recent attempts at moderation notwithstanding, Gingrich's reputation for red-hot rhetoric had preceded him.
"Newt is to the Republican Party what Malcolm X is to Martin Luther King," said Pam Dunlap, a Thousand Oaks insurance agent. "He's kind of a controversial guy."
Nevertheless, Dunlap stood patiently in line with her husband after the breakfast fund-raiser, waiting to pose for a picture with Gingrich and Gallegly (R-Simi Valley).
Gallegly himself acknowledged "many people came there maybe a little bit dubious," but he credited the Speaker with winning the crowds over at the Westlake Inn event.
Some were easily won over. Bob Larkin, a former county Republican Party chairman who is a candidate for the state Assembly, said he thinks putting a picture of himself with Gingrich on a campaign brochure would be a big boost with Ventura County voters.
"It's Gingrich country," Larkin said.
Indeed, while Gingrich's book-signing appearances across the country have at times drawn liberal protesters, the only demonstrators at the Ventura County events Friday were a pair from the far-right John Birch Society, calling for the United States to withdraw from the United Nations.
The Reagan library crowd greeted Gingrich with a standing ovation. The audience was so heavily Republican that liberal columnist and television personality Michael Kinsley, who participated in a panel discussion that followed Gingrich's speech, virtually gave up after the crowd loudly grumbled whenever he made a point.
When the panel's moderator asked Kinsley to make the case for voting to reelect President Clinton in 1996, Kinsley answered, "I'm not going to persuade this crowd of that, so I'm not even going to bother."
To both audiences, Gingrich talked of the need "to renew American civilization."
He said all students should be required to do two hours of homework every day, and that welfare recipients who he said "drink beer and watch movies on TV" should "turn off the soap opera, walk to the library and pick up a book."
Speaking to an audience laced with executives from Sunkist, Lockheed-Martin and Paramount, Gingrich at times strayed into language more likely to be found in a business school or medical school lecture than in a stump speech.
He called the "contract with America" a "training management document," and said the federal government should adopt the ideas of management gurus Peter Drucker and W. Edwards Deming.
"I see President Reagan's experiences as a triple helix instead of a double helix," he told the crowd at the Reagan library. He said the American people, the Republican Party and Reagan had an interwoven, spiral relationship like the structure of a DNA molecule.
As though to reassure those who might have thought Gingrich--at his most futuristic--sounded more like a wonkish Al Gore than the old-fashioned cowboy Reagan, the Speaker said Reagan, too, was a futurist. He said it was appropriate that the former President, who moved from radio to movies to television--as each became dominant--also pitched General Electric with the slogan, "Progress is our most important product."
In another bow to Reagan, Gingrich called for re-establishing the "just say no" to drugs campaign championed by the former First Lady. He said wealthy people found guilty of drug use or possession should be required to perform two days a week of community service, because for the rich, time is more important than money.
He also said people who import commercial amounts of illicit drugs should get the death penalty.
Gingrich, who stopped in a replica of Reagan's Oval Office during a tour of the library, said he will decide by November whether to run for president in 1996. Asked if the Speaker would make a good president, Nancy Reagan said she doesn't get into politics.
She said her husband, who has Alzheimer's disease, is doing well.