It started, as hyperventilating political spats tend to do, on social media.
Following the death of Nelson Mandela, former Speaker of the House and CNN co-host Newt Gingrich praised the former South African leader in a Facebook eulogy as "one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime."
"His life was a triumph of the human spirit," Gingrich said.
That praise didn't sit well with some of Gingrich's fellow conservatives, who accused him of re-writing history and embracing a noted communist and terrorist.
"Newt, I was rooting for you to win the primaries and become the next president; please tell me your joking!," wrote one commenter. "Mandela was a commie murderer!"
"Not you too Newt!!!!," wrote another particularly enthusiastic respondent, whose comment received dozens of likes. "COME ON!!!! You are a so-called historian!!!! This man was a Communist!!!! And murdered many people!!!"
Gingrich was one of many Republicans to take heat for memorializing Mandela last week. Even Tea Party hero Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) took some lumps for an innocuous Facebook post mourning Mandela's passing. But the brouhaha over Gingrich's remarks is particularly notable in that the former Speaker was one of the few conservative lawmakers to defend Mandela — and vocally oppose apartheid — three decades ago.
Gingrich himself noted that point in addressing the backlash with an open letter on his website, asking conservatives who didn't want to praise Mandela: "What would you have done?" And in his defense, he pointed out that America's founders — like Mandela, who led a guerilla group that carried out bombings — were once considered terrorists for fighting for independence.
Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country…As Americans we celebrate the farmers at Lexington and Concord who used force to oppose British tyranny. We praise George Washington for spending eight years in the field fighting the British Army's dictatorial assault on our freedom.
Patrick Henry said, "Give me liberty or give me death."
Thomas Jefferson wrote and the Continental Congress adopted that "all men are created equal, and they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."
Doesn't this apply to Nelson Mandela and his people? [Gingrich Productions]
Opposing tyranny with force is one thing, but political affiliation is another. And given Mandela's communist sympathies, it's not too surprising the GOP's loud libertarian wing cried foul over that point. As Isaac Chotiner wrote in the New Republic, "one of the things that inhibited a complex appraisal of Mandela's legacy in the 1980s was the fact that the Cold War was being fought." And though the war is now over, "its shadow still obscures a complex understanding of Mandela's legacy."
Hence, President Reagan vetoed proposed sanctions for South Africa in the 1980s because he feared an alternative communist government. And though the Cold War has ended, latent fears of communist rule still pop up today in feverish accusations that President Obama is a socialist, and that his health care law will drag the U.S. inexorably toward totalitarianism.
Posthumously critiquing Mandela's entire legacy based solely on his political leanings obscures the enormity of his achievements. As the American Conservative's Rob Dreher wrote, it is "foolish to judge historical figures outside of the context of their times," because doing so results in a deeply skewed perception of them.
Their sanctity does not excuse their failings, but we have to judge them in context of their times, and the challenges they faced
It is the same with secular figures like the communist-of-convenience Nelson Mandela … or the slave-holding Thomas Jefferson, or the arguably traitorous-on-behalf-of-a-slave-society Gen. Robert E. Lee, or the philandering and plagiarizing Martin Luther King Jr., or … you get the picture. Very few of the great men (and women) of history are saints. [American Conservative]
Then and now, Gingrich considered Mandela in his entirety, his actions as they related to his place in history. The vicious backlash over Gingrich's remarks, on the other hand, exemplified the alternative, reductive way to consider the legacy of history's greatest figures.