Many commenters lashed out at Gingrich for lauding the man they called "murderer," "terrorist" and "commie" for his pre-imprisonment opposition of the apartheid South Africa and his ties to the African National Congress. (The ANC -- and Mandela -- were placed on the terrorist watch list by President Reagan and remained there until 2008.)
"Newt, I was rooting for you to win the primaries and become the next president; please tell me your joking!! Mandela was a commie murderer!!" one person wrote.
"Such an amazing re-write of history since 1962 and 1990. Newt, I thought you of all people, a historian, would be true to who this guy really was," another added.
Gingrich, who, unlike many conservatives at the time, opposed apartheid and helped override Reagan's veto of sanctions against South Africa, seemed truly taken aback at the vehemence of comments, responding both in his weekly newsletter and on State of the Union Sunday.
"I was surprised by the hostility and vehemence of some of the people who reacted to me saying a kind word about a unique historic figure," Gingrich said. "So let me say to those conservatives who don’t want to honor Nelson Mandela, what would you have done?"
In his letter, Gingrich aligned Mandela's fight against oppression both to the American revolutionaries in the eighteenth century and puzzled at how "some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington" could "attack Mandela when he's opposed to oppression in his own country."
Below, is Gingrich's full statement:
Yesterday I issued a heartfelt and personal statement about the passing of President Nelson Mandela. I said that his family and his country would be in my prayers and Callista’s prayers.
I was surprised by the hostility and vehemence of some of the people who reacted to me saying a kind word about a unique historic figure.
So let me say to those conservatives who don’t want to honor Nelson Mandela, what would you have done?
Mandela was faced with a vicious apartheid regime that eliminated all rights for blacks and gave them no hope for the future. This was a regime which used secret police, prisons and military force to crush all efforts at seeking freedom by blacks.
What would you have done faced with that crushing government?
What would you do here in America if you had that kind of oppression?
Some of the people who are most opposed to oppression from Washington attack Mandela when he was opposed to oppression in his own country.
After years of preaching non-violence, using the political system, making his case as a defendant in court, Mandela resorted to violence against a government that was ruthless and violent in its suppression of free speech.
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?
Some conservatives say, ah, but he was a communist.
Actually Mandela was raised in a Methodist school, was a devout Christian, turned to communism in desperation only after South Africa was taken over by an extraordinarily racist government determined to eliminate all rights for blacks.
I would ask of his critics: where were some of these conservatives as allies against tyranny? Where were the masses of conservatives opposing Apartheid? In a desperate struggle against an overpowering government, you accept the allies you have just as Washington was grateful for a French monarchy helping him defeat the British.
Finally, if you had been imprisoned for 27 years, 18 of them in a cell eight foot by seven foot, how do you think you would have emerged? Would you have been angry? Would you have been bitter?
Nelson Mandela emerged from 27 years in prison as an astonishingly wise, patient, and compassionate
He called for reconciliation among the races. He invited his prison guard to sit in the front row at his inauguration as President. In effect he said to the entire country, “If I can forgive the man who imprisoned me, surely you can forgive your neighbors.”
Far from behaving like a communist, President Mandela reassured businesses that they could invest in South Africa and grow in South Africa. He had learned that jobs come from job creators.
I was very privileged to be able to meet with President Mandela and present the Congressional Medal of Freedom. As much as any person in our lifetime he had earned our respect and our recognition.
Before you criticize him, ask yourself, what would you have done in his circumstances?
So far, there seem to be just as many (or more) comments on Gingrich's elaboration as his first statement. Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz, who is traveling to South Africa as part of the U.S. delegation to Mandela's memorial, faced similar backlash.