WASHINGTON -- Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) said Sunday he was "very surprised" at people who were critical of his decision to praise Nelson Mandela this week, standing by his admiration for Mandela's "very long, deep commitment to freedom."
"President Nelson Mandela was one of the greatest leaders of our lifetime," he wrote. "When he visited the Congress I was deeply impressed with the charisma and the calmness with which he could dominate a room. It was as if the rest of us grew smaller and he grew stronger and more dominant the longer the meeting continued."
Gingrich's statement, however, was met with backlash from many of his followers.
"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!!" read one comment that was popular with other users.
"You're forgetting Mandela's extreme racism! There are YouTubes of Mandela singing songs about murdering the white man. I spit on his grave....," read another.
When asked about the criticism in an interview on CNN's "State of the Union" on Sunday, Gingrich replied, "I was very surprised by it. [My wife] Callista posted my statement on her Facebook page and was amazed at some of the intensity -- some of whom came back three, four and five times repeating how angry they were."
"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," he said. "So let me say to those conservatives who don’t want to honor Nelson Mandela, what would you have done?"
Responding to conservatives who dismiss Mandela as a communist, Gingrich added, "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."
As Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic pointed out, Gingrich's support for Mandela is not new or an attempt to rewrite history.
"Newt Gingrich was among a cadre of conservatives who opposed the mainstream conservative stance on Apartheid and ultimately helped override Reagan's unconscionable veto of sanctions," he wrote, adding, "When Gingrich compliments Mandela on his presidency he doesn't do so within the context of alleged African pathologies, but within the context of countries throughout the world. It's a textbook lessons in 'How not to be racist,' which is to say it is a textbook lesson in how to talk about Nelson Mandela as though he were a human being."
Watch Gingrich's video:
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) also encountered a fair amount of vitriol last week when he honored Mandela in a Facebook post, writing, "Nelson Mandela will live in history as an inspiration for defenders of liberty around the globe… Because of his epic fight against injustice, an entire nation is now free.”
When CNN host Candy Crowley asked Gingrich if he believed his and Cruz's critics were fellow conservatives, the former House speaker said they were people who bought into "a rationale that defined everybody who was in any way in rebellion against the established system in the third world as anti-American."