Scratch 'n' Sniff Ethics Mars Newt's Re-election

When a creature of the Long Island Republican machine like Representative Michael Forbes holds his nose, the odor emanating from Newt Gingrich must be pretty rancid. According to surveys on the eve of his re-election as Speaker of the House, most of the people Mr. Gingrich refers to as "normal Americans" have gotten a whiff of something awful, too. But for many of them a question remains: Exactly what is that smell?This olfactory confusion seems to afflict journalists and pundits as well. Few stories have explained comprehensively the actual charges pending against Mr. Gingrich, let alone the ethically compromised history of his rise to power.Coverage of his ordeal has focused lately on whether he filed a misleading statement with the House ethics committee, and whether he did or didn't pay attention to legal advice about the tax code's strictures on the enterprises collectively known as "Newt Inc." That narrow scrutiny encouraged the notion that his peccadilloes are trivial. As a result, problems of strategy and procedure have obscured issues of substance. Mr. Gingrich benefited by such distractions, which have prevented most Americans from identifying his putrid offenses with any precision. They've never liked the looks or sound of the man. They've noticed a hauntingly familiar and unpleasant aroma emanating from his vicinity. But very few would be able to say what the Speaker has done to deserve investigation by his peers. While the media coverage lacked context, the debaters in Congress were bereft of credibility. After four years of partisan attacks on the White House, who wants to listen to Republicans screaming about "partisanship" and "character assassination" now? Even the Republicans urging Mr. Gingrich to walk the plank seem bluntly concerned with politics, not ethics. And Democrats demanding the Speaker's scalp are quite reasonably suspected of placing vengeance above moral hygiene.Fortunately, anyone who cares to trace the stink back to its source can seek out the entirely credible and historically grounded analysis of Mr. Gingrich's career by Larry Sabato and Glenn Simpson in their neglected book, Dirty Little Secrets. Published last year, this landmark study of political corruption is scrupulously nonpartisan, sparing neither the Christian Coalition nor the A.F.L.-C.I.O. Mr. Sabato is an outspoken political science professor who has regularly denounced both parties (and journalists of various persuasions, including me on one occasion). Mr. Simpson is a respected Wall Street Journal reporter whose latest scoops have revealed the unsavory character of certain contributors to the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton-Gore campaign.What Mr. Sabato and Mr. Simpson demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt is that in Mr. Gingrich's rise to power, he has consistently evaded financial-disclosure laws, misused tax-exempt entities and sold his influence for political contributions. The smell clinging to the Speaker is the hauntingly familiar scent of tainted money.The authors explore how Mr. Gingrich used Gopac--the political action committee through which he pursued his crusade against Congressional Democrats--to sidestep Federal election rules limiting contribution amounts and requiring disclosure of donations from his coterie of conservative fat cats. They carefully catalogue the favors he performed for those contributors--seeking Federal subsidies for their businesses, pushing their interests before Federal agencies and, in one especially egregious instance, trying to protect a toxic polluter from regulatory action. While he made sonorous speeches as minority whip denouncing the "special favors, dishonesty and deception" that marred the Democratic Congress, as Mr. Sabato and Mr. Simpson note acidly, "he was clearly willing to use his clout, repeatedly mixing his fund-raising interests and those of his political machine with government policy-making."The most comically blatant episode they recount is the story behind Mr. Gingrich's renowned college course on "Renewing American Civilization." Realizing in 1992 that he needed to impart his epoch-making message more widely, Mr. Gingrich turned to a dean at Kennesaw State College in western Georgia. As it happened, the educator had his own fish to fry, involving Federal grants to the dean's private consulting business. They soon struck a deal in which Mr. Gingrich boosted the dean's commercial prospects, while the dean helped Mr. Gingrich obtain a teaching gig (and money from college foundations). Though tarted up in collegiate drag, Mr. Gingrich's nationally televised course was designed from the start as a "partisan organizing tool," as revealed in confidential documents cited by Mr. Sabato and Mr. Simpson.To anyone who has heard right-wing complaints about the state of higher education, this is amusing indeed. But it gets better, or worse. Business people and lobbyists who put up funds to support Mr. Gingrich's classroom ranting were invited to "participate in the course development process." In practice, this meant using corporate videos as course material and lionizing corporate donors in lectures. "Gingrich seemed to have grown more and more blatant and casual about this sort of influence-peddling during the 1990's," the authors write, "engaging in it almost by rote." In other words, he got so used to his own ethical stench that he didn't notice it anymore. His re-election suggests that his Republican colleagues are quite accustomed to the Speaker's perfume, too.Question TimeBy the way, did "Renewing American Civilization" meet the standards of academic excellence and integrity touted by Mr. Gingrich's pal William Bennett?


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