Sen. Graham: ‘We were too hard’ on Newt Gingrich in 1997 coup attempt

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who was deeply involved in the failed 1997 GOP coup to overthrow then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), said that in retrospect his group of dissidents was “too hard” on Gingrich.

Gingrich survived the uprising, but resigned in 1998 after the GOP lost seats in the midterm elections.

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“Looking back, I appreciate how hard his job was better than I did in 1997,” Graham, who represented the Palmetto State in the House during the failed coup, said Thursday on Fox News. “I’m here to say that as a guy that was in the coup, that looking back we were too hard on him, and if he got to be the nominee I think he could win.”

Gingrich’s GOP rivals in the presidential race have focused on his tumultuous Speakership to try to portray him as an “unreliable leader.”

“When he’s on, there is no better messenger for what we believe as conservatives, and when he’s not on, he’s a danger to himself and others at times,” Graham said.

Only two of the 81 Republican lawmakers who served with Gingrich and are still in Congress have endorsed him, while 22 are backing Mitt Romney.

Others who either haven’t endorsed or weren’t in Congress in 1997, such as Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), have come out strongly against Gingrich’s candidacy nonetheless.

Still, Graham’s reassessment shows the conflict many Republicans have about Gingrich’s candidacy: Many of them favor his commitment to implementing broad conservative changes, but believe his style is too undisciplined to accomplish his lofty goals.

“The coup was in my office, and I was one of the guys who thought Newt was being too cozy with [President] Clinton and was very erratic — and he was erratic at times,” Graham said. “But now in 2012 when I’ve sat down and tried to solve hard problems like immigration and trying to come up with a rational energy policy — he was trying to lead a revolution, deal with Bill Clinton, run the government from a House perspective — I think we were probably too hard on him.”

While Graham hasn’t endorsed a GOP candidate yet, he said Gingrich is better equipped to handle the presidency today than he was in 1997.

“What he was able to accomplish with President Clinton is now viewed as pretty historic, but he did have an erratic nature … that drove us crazy to a certain extent,” Graham said. “But now I understand how difficult it is to put deals together, and I think I’ve matured and I think he’s mellowed, and those who underestimate Speaker Gingrich do so at their own peril.”