News & Politics
Gingrich & The Susan Smith Case
April 25, 2000
Newt Gingrich has gotten away with it. Again. Even after a South Carolina jury declared Susan Smith guilty of murdering her two sons, reporters are not pressing Gingrich about the Smith case. Many seem to have forgotten that nine months ago, he loudly proclaimed the infanticide to be a campaign issue. Back in early November, the motor-mouthed Gingrich had much to say about the case -- offering a treatise so wrong-headed that it's almost laughable. Except there's nothing funny about the Susan Smith tragedy...or Gingrich's attempt to exploit it for election-eve advantage. Here's what Gingrich said three days before last November's election -- in response to an Associated Press reporter who asked him how the campaign was going: "Slightly more moving our way. I think that the mother killing the two children in South Carolina vividly reminds every American how sick the society is getting and how much we need to change things." Gingrich concluded, "The only way you get change is to vote Republican. That's the message for the last three days." Two days later, less than 24 hours before the polls opened, Gingrich defended his comments on the Smith case as no different than what he'd been saying for years -- that violence and related ills arise from a Democratic-controlled political system: "We need very deep change if we're going to turn this country around." Asked if the change he was offering the country would stop killings like those in South Carolina, he replied, "Yes. In my judgment, there's no question." Today, reporters should ask Gingrich an obvious question: Does he still impute blame to the Democrats for Susan Smith's deed? Journalists might also ask Gingrich about Smith's stepfather, Beverly Russell. Prior to the kids' disappearance, Russell was busily campaigning not for the depraved Democrats, but for Newt Gingrich and his minions. Russell was a Republican leader in South Carolina and local organizer of Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition. During the nine days that Susan Smith had the country hunting for a nonexistent black carjacker, Russell urged nationwide prayer for the two missing kids: "All we can do is pray. This is a nightmare." A prominent businessman and stockbroker, Russell married Smith's mom after she divorced Smith's dad (who later committed suicide). From the age of six, Russell raised Susan Smith in an upper-middle-class, church-going home. Gingrich's campaign comments notwithstanding, the home was free of counterculture and welfare-state influences. But Susan Smith attempted suicide at age 13, and at age 15 told authorities that her stepdad had been sexually molesting her for at least a year. Her mother helped talk her out of pursuing charges against Russell. (At age 18, she attempted suicide again.) The child-abuse case against the well-connected businessman smells of a cover-up. It's not known exactly how long the molestation went on, because the case file mysteriously vanished. And Susan Smith was not even represented in court by a lawyer or guardian, as required for minors. The social-service worker who investigated the molestation testified at the murder trial that although Russell admitted the abuse and agreed to seek counseling, she was "concerned" that law enforcement closed the case so quickly. Whatever counseling Russell underwent had little impact. The murder trial revealed that he was still having sex with his stepdaughter as recently as two months before she killed her kids. While nothing can begin to excuse the horrendous act of drowning children in a lake, it's clear that Susan Smith suffered far more trauma in her youth than any girl should have to endure. And most of the trauma was inflicted -- not by McGovernik Democrats or welfare bureaucrats -- but by an abusive stepfather who publicly championed "family values" and "school prayer" as partisan Republican issues. The truth is that sexual abuse of children in the home is widespread -- and crosses all ideological lines. It's also true that the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act was dismembered this year by Gingrich-led "pro-family" forces in the House. Newt Gingrich should be pressed to discuss these realities. After all, he's the one who originally declared the Smith case in play as a political football. Journalists shouldn't let him simply drop the ball at his convenience. Here's a question that should be posed: Mr. Gingrich, were you wrong to try to politicize this tragedy, especially when you hadn't a clue what the facts were? And let's not forget Gingrich's McCarthy-like effort in 1992 to link the Democratic platform to Woody Allen, then in the news for his affair with the 21-year-old daughter of his longtime companion, Mia Farrow. Would it be fair politics, someone should ask Gingrich, for Democrats to denounce Republicans today as the "Beverly Russell party"? Currently talking up a storm on his book tour, Newt Gingrich is getting the red carpet treatment on America's biggest talkshows. It would be refreshing to see an interviewer confront the Speaker of the House on his past effort to lay Susan Smith's murdered kids at the feet of the Democratic Party.