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For Gingrich, the ethics sword cut two ways

By Sheryl Gay Stolberg

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LAST UPDATED: 01:58 a.m. HST, Jan 27, 2012



WASHINGTON » Newt Gingrich had an urgent warning for conservatives: Jim Wright, the Democratic speaker of the House, was out to destroy America.

It was April 1988, a month before Gingrich, an up-and-coming Republican congressman, shocked colleagues by pressing ethics charges against the powerful Wright. Now, he was singling out the speaker as a major obstacle in a coming “civil war” with liberals.

“This war has to be fought with a scale and a duration and a savagery that is only true of civil wars,” Gingrich said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation.

He branded Wright as part of “the hard left,” whose members, he warned, “will try by chameleon-like actions to destroy our country.”

The brutal civil war Gingrich predicted did indeed come to pass, during a nearly decadelong conflict in which ethics charges were the primary weapon. Gingrich lodged a complaint against Wright, which cost the Democratic speaker his job. Democrats, in turn, bombarded Gingrich with accusations of ethical impropriety, which led to a $300,000 fine and a reprimand for bringing discredit to the House.

Gingrich, Democrats and Republicans here agree, emerged as one of Washington’s most aggressive practitioners of slash-and-burn politics; many fault him for erasing whatever civility once existed in the capital. He believed, and preached, that harsh language could win elections; in 1990, the political action committee he ran, GOPAC, instructed Republican candidates to learn to “speak like Newt,” and offered a list of words to describe Democrats — like decay, traitors, radical, sick, destroy, pathetic, corrupt and shame.

Those same qualities are now on display as Gingrich, a Republican candidate for president, turns his caustic tongue against Republicans and Democrats alike. He has tried to cut down Mitt Romney as promoting “pious baloney,” branded President Barack Obama “the food stamp president” and mocked him for living on “Planet Obama.” He has gone after the “elite media” as well, denouncing the “destructive, vicious, negative nature” of those whose questions he does not like.

On the campaign trail, Gingrich, whose spokesman did not return calls or emails seeking comment for this article, promotes himself as an elder Republican statesman, often reminding voters that as House speaker, he worked with a Democratic president, Bill Clinton, to balance the budget and overhaul the welfare system.

But he neglects to mention that he also presided over Clinton’s impeachment (which later provoked charges of hypocrisy, because the case concerned Clinton’s adulterous behavior while Gingrich himself was having an extramarital affair) or that his bombastic style helped cost him his s speakership in 1998.

Gingrich’s recent surge in the polls makes leading Republicans nervous; one, former Sen. Bob Dole, endorsed Romney on Thursday, saying Gingrich “loved picking a fight.” And his history of combat with Democrats — “the enemy of normal Americans” Gingrich once called them — leads people in both parties to wonder if he could work in a bipartisan way.

“Government is dysfunctional because the presidency and Congress no longer have the ability to compromise, and I put Newt at the heart of that,” said Mickey Edwards, a Republican former congressman from Oklahoma who served in leadership alongside Gingrich, and who is neutral in the Republican primary.

“When he was in the House,” Edwards added, “he had some temptation to work across party lines because he wanted to be considered an equal with Bill Clinton. But I think if you were in a position where Newt had the upper hand as president, his style would not be to find a way to compromise, but to turn up the heat on Democrats.”

Ethics as a weapon

Gingrich arrived on Capitol Hill in January 1979, as a freshman Republican from Georgia, having already made ethics an issue in his first political campaigns.

Once in Washington, Gingrich found an obvious target: Rep. Charles C. Diggs, D-Mich., founder of the Congressional Black Caucus who had been convicted of taking kickbacks from staff members but re-elected while awaiting sentencing. Most newcomers to Congress would have remained silent on a delicate matter involving a senior member. But Gingrich led the charge to expel Diggs, confiding to one close colleague that it was a “gutsy thing to do,” because he risked accusations of racism. The House eventually censured Diggs, and he quit in disgrace.

Over time, Gingrich sought to make fighting corruption his signature issue — an effort aimed mostly at Democrats.

He pushed for, and won, harsher punishment for two lawmakers, one a Republican and one a Democrat, who were accused of sexual misconduct. He railed against Democrats over a disputed election in Indiana, accusing them of stealing the seat, and maneuvered quietly behind the scenes to orchestrate the work of the Gang of Seven, which in the early 1990s created a ruckus over lawmakers’ overdrafts at the private House bank and other congressional perks. He called for the censure of Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., over Frank’s relationship with a male prostitute. (Frank received a lesser reprimand instead.)

“Newt,” Frank says today, “is the single most influential factor in replacing the politics in which in which you accepted the bona fides of your opponents and disagreed with them civilly with the politics of insisting that your opponents are bad people.”

Gingrich has said he was on a mission to “repair the integrity of the House,” but critics are skeptical. Fred Wertheimer, then the head of Common Cause, says Gingrich saw ethics charges as “a vehicle for destroying the House as an institution and taking over what was left.”

But Steven M. Gillon, a University of Oklahoma historian who has written a book about Gingrich and Clinton, offers another explanation. Southern Republicans in the post-civil rights era often used race as a wedge issue, Gillon said. But Gingrich, a one-time Rockefeller Republican who embraced integration, needed a different line of attack.

“He needed to find a wedge that would undermine the moral credibility of the Democratic Party,” Gillon said, adding, “He could use ethics as sort of a bludgeon, and that’s what he did.”

Empty house, big microphone

Gingrich’s arrival in Congress coincided with the rise of C-Span, the cable channel that televised House proceedings, and he figured out early on how to combine his gift for oratory with the power of the camera. Night after night, he would lambaste Democrats, speaking in an empty House chamber after the day’s legislative business was done. Gingrich would needle Democrats, challenging them to come forward and defend themselves. No one did, because no one was there.

Things came to a head in May 1984, on a day when the chamber was full. Gingrich had been pounding a group of Democrats over a letter they had written to Daniel Ortega, the Nicaraguan leader, accusing them of spreading “communist propaganda.” Thomas P. O’Neill Jr., the House speaker, let loose.

“You deliberately stood in that well before an empty House, and challenged these people, and challenged their Americanism,” he roared, wagging his forefinger at Gingrich, “and it’s the lowest thing I’ve ever seen in my 32 years in Congress.”

It was a rare breach of decorum; Gingrich had gotten the better of O’Neill. House rules forbid personal insults, so O’Neill’s words were “taken down” — stricken from the record, a rare rebuke and a turning point, many here say, in relations between Republicans and Democrats.

“That was the moment he became a real star,” John J. Pitney Jr., a professor at Claremont McKenna College, who has written extensively about Gingrich and polarization in Congress. “It was David taking on Goliath.”

A fight becomes a war

August 1987 was a “decisive moment” for Gingrich, he wrote in his 1998 mea culpa book, “Lessons Learned the Hard Way.” It was when he began to view his fight with Democrats as a civil war.

“One culture or the other,” he wrote, “would have to go.”

By this time, Gingrich had taken charge of GOPAC, a once-sleepy political action committee dedicated to electing Republicans. Gingrich pumped it up into a fundraising machine and a training organization in which Republican candidates were given step-by-step information on how to run for office. He produced seminars and a series of cassette tapes; today, hundreds if not thousands of Republican officeholders in states around the country can recall riding around in their cars listening to Gingrich’s formula for winning.

Edwards, the former Republican congressman, described the tapes as “all about how to demonize the opposition, how to use invective and scary language,” adding: “It wasn’t that he trained them to have a better understanding of foreign policy, or economic policy. They were techniques in how to wage a nasty partisan war against your opponent.”

By August 1987, that opponent, for Gingrich at least, was Wright, the House speaker, whom he viewed as covering for the corrupt Democratic Party.

Gingrich spent more than a year making speeches against Wright, branding him “the least ethical speaker of the 20th century.” The charge that finally stuck involved a vanity book, “Reflections of a Public Man,” that Wright sold in bulk to lobbyists and supporters, under an unusual agreement for him to receive 55 percent of the royalties. (Years later, Gingrich would come under attack for his own book deal.)

The House Ethics Committee found “reason to believe” that Wright had violated House rules in 69 instances; seeking to avoid a drawn out disciplinary hearing, he resigned in June 1989, giving Gingrich’s his biggest Democratic scalp.

“He was as partisan as Newt was partisan,” Wilma Goldstein, a former Republican National Committee official who worked closely with Gingrich, said of Wright. “So Newt just decided, ‘By God, if we’re going to take them down, let’s start at the top.”’

But again, some Republicans were uncomfortable. Gingrich, by then the Republican whip, was clearly angling to replace the House Republican leader, Robert H. Michel, viewed by many in his party as too accommodating to Democrats. Michel, now 88, recalls warning Gingrich that what goes around comes around.

“I would say, ‘Newt, these fellows over there are not our enemy, they’re our political adversaries,”’ Michel said. He reminded him that Democrats and Republicans often traded places in leadership. “That could happen to you,” Michel recalled saying. “If you don’t treat them with respect, boy, the next time around, they have a chance to really put the shivs to you.”

Time for payback

Michel, it turned out, was right.

Gingrich climbed his way to the speakership in January 1995, and once he got there vowed to take the high road. He had spent years labeling Democrats as “counterculture” proponents of the “liberal welfare state,” and in 1994 went so far as to suggest the case of Susan Smith, a South Carolina mother who murdered her two sons, was evidence of “how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things” by electing Republicans.

But once in power, he pledged to work cooperatively, explaining that being in the majority freed him to be more conciliatory.

“In the minority,” he said then, “it’s like the defense in football. You’re in a different position. You have to be more combative.”

It was too late. Democrats were already bombarding him with ethics charges. During his bid for re-election, Gingrich’s opponent filed a complaint alleging that he had used a college course, “Renewing American Civilization,” to promote a partisan agenda, improperly mixing GOPAC money with public funds.

And once he won, Gingrich came under withering criticism for a $4.5 million book advance from HarperCollins, whose owner, Rupert Murdoch, had business pending before the Congress. Under pressure, Gingrich turned down the advance. (His defense was that unlike Wright, he was writing “a real book.”)

Over the course of two years, more than 80 charges — ranging from alleged tax violations to complaints that he used GOPAC money to finance one of his own campaigns — were filed against Gingrich with the House Ethics Committee. The convoluted inquiry consumed official Washington, with Democrats saying he was getting what he deserved and Republicans calling it a political vendetta.

“Yes, he filed ethics charges against Speaker Wright, and I would concede that it wasn’t just because Newt was out to clean up Congress,” said Dan Meyer, a former Gingrich aide. “I think he used it as a partisan tactic, but the scale of the response was way out of proportion.”

In the end, nearly all of the charges were dismissed. But the Ethics Committee did find that Gingrich had used tax-exempt money to promote Republican goals and given the panel inaccurate information for its inquiry.

Gingrich formally apologized, conceding he had brought discredit on the House. He had always regarded himself as a “transformative figure” who would change the course of history, but on Jan. 21, 1997, he made history in another way.

The House voted 395-28 to reprimand him and fine him $300,000, making him the first speaker disciplined for unethical conduct.






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