JACKSONVILLE, Florida — As Newt Gingrich tries to lay claim to Ronald Reagan’s mythologized presidency — and Mitt Romney tries to poke holes in that narrative — the Reagan diaries have become a weapon used by both camps.
It started in South Carolina, when Romney accused Gingrich during a debate of exaggerating his role in the Reagan revolution.
“I mean, I looked at the Reagan diary,” he told Gingrich. “You’re mentioned once in Ronald Reagan’s diary. And in the diary, he says you had an idea in a meeting of young congressmen, and it wasn’t a very good idea and he dismissed it. That’s the entire mention.”
On a press call Friday morning, though, Reagan biographer Craig Shirley pushed back against that attack.
“That entry is one more time than Mitt Romney is in the Reagan diaries,” said Shirley, whose firm has been hired by the Gingrich campaign.
Shirley went on to claim that most of the time, when Jack Kemp was invited to a meeting in the Reagan White House, Gingrich was there too. To complete his point, Shirley started counting: “And it looks like Jack is mentioned, let’s see, six, eight, 10, 12 — 14 entries noting Jack in the Reagan diaries.”
When a reporter noted that Romney has rolled out his own band of former Reagan administration officials to help his cause, Shirley sought to prove the superiority of Gingrich’s surrogates with — what else? — the Reagan diaries.
Shirley asserted that Richard Williamson — a foreign policy adviser under Reagan who is now backing Romney — is not a Reaganite “in any way, shape or form… [he] is not mentioned in the Reagan diaries.”
On the other hand, Bud McFarlane, Reagan’s national security adviser who was on the press call Friday, is mentioned in there over 60 times.
Of course, as The Atlantic’s David Graham points out today, it’s a tough sell for either Romney or Gingrich to cast themselves as early Reagan devotees on matters of substance and politics — which could explain why both candidates are so interested in fussing over a decades-old journal.