Newt Flunks His Big Exam

Fact & Fiction

Newt Gingrich in the current issue of Brill’s Content fails a history test probably the first hundred people in the phone book could pass. The test? Who or what was responsible for the long gas lines of 1979.

Gingrich’s answer is Jimmy Carter, who, we are told, “in his efforts to outmaneuver the laws of supply and demand in gasoline prices, gave us the Department of Energy, long lines at gas stations, and a gas shortage.” Gingrich adds: “One of President Ronald Reagan’s first acts after inauguration was to deregulate the petroleum market, and gas prices promptly dropped. We have not seen gas lines since.”

The real reason for the gas mess in 1979, of course, was the Iranian revolution, which took Iran off the oil market, leading to a worldwide shortage in the first quarter of about 2 million barrels per day, as Daniel Yergin explains in The Prize. Jimmy Carter had nothing to do with it.

Attacking Jimmy Carter is sport for conservatives. But in fact Carter himself was as much a believer in the free market in oil as Gingrich. It was Richard Nixon who put controls on the price of domestic crude in response to the first oil shock, which followed the 1973 Arab oil embargo. Carter advocated lifting the controls, as he explained in his infamous April 1979 “this is the moral equivalent of war” energy address. (Congress wouldn’t let him remove the controls all at once, so Carter agreed to a plan to lift them in stages.)

If Gingrich wants to blame a president for long gas lines he need look no further than Richard Nixon. As historians have discovered, Nixon welcomed long lines, though he never admitted to the public that he did, as a means of reducing energy demand. As his energy chief, John Love, explained in a secret memo, the plan was to “allocate the reduced quantities of gasoline to the retail level and force a reduction in demand by permitting customers to wait in lines at … stations.”

And what about Ronald Reagan, whom Gingrich credits for the abolition of controls? Reagan did indeed deregulate oil—under a law embraced by Carter lifting all controls by 1981.

Carter was responsible for the creation of the Department of Energy. What this act had to do with the creation of long gas lines is unclear.

Ronald Reagan promised to dismantle the department. George Bush I promised to keep it, a promise his son made as well.

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staff - 6/22/2001

Sorry you experienced trouble posting a comment. The system should have opened a new window for you to create an account, leaving your exisiting window unaltered. But you know how computers are sometimes. The Editor.

Nanit - 6/22/2001

I wrote an email about your mistakes in the Gotcha piece on Newt. It was blocked because I hadn't signed in and gotten a password. So I did that, then went back to send the email I had written and it was gone. Thanks so much. Nanit