The Least and the Slightest

BY THE TIME you read this, Newt Gingrich will have been re-elected speaker of the House. It won't be the end of his troubles. In purely tactical terms, a weakened Gingrich is in many ways preferable to a deposed Gingrich; at present there is something to be said for a president and a speaker too beset by scandal to devote much attention to governing. Given the predilections of Clinton and Gingrich, their slow political deaths may be the best available safeguard--pathetic as it is--for what's left of aid to the elderly, the poor, and the ill.

Gingrich's trading of political favor for campaign cash is in the end probably no more egregious than Bill Clinton's, but Newt's misdeeds are less legally obscure; and he appears less personally insulated from them, since he is plainly the one common denominator between all the diverse ventures and organizations that are implicated. His offenses start with the laundering of political moneys through nonprofit and theoretically nonpartisan organizations, a gambit that encouraged Gingrich contributors to open their purses wider by allowing them to write it all off on their taxes. More brazen still, he effectively sold time on his TV lecture course to cash patrons. This was a more or less open offer. For $50,000, contributors could purchase Sponsor status and "work directly with the leadership of the Renewing American Civilization project in the course development process."

Renewing American civilization, like any worthwhile endeavor, does after all cost money. In a memo dated May 10, 1993, a Gingrich finance wonk named Pamela Prochman wrote to Gingrich production lackeys that they could score $20,000-$25,000 from a particular donor by having Newt mention a particular article from a business journal. Gingrich's so-called "college course" was full of such stuff. One segment included a long, effusive plug for Golden Rule, an insurance outfit that served as sole sponsor of another Newt-TV venture, the Progress and Freedom Foundation's Progress Report.

Another Gingrich scam involved the resuscitation of a body called the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation. The Lincoln Foundation episode perhaps most concisely encapsulates the Gingrich modus operandi, which is to follow the money at all times even if it means tunneling under numerous laws. Founded in 1984 as a charity to aid urban children living in poverty, the ALOF was lying fallow when Newt happened upon it, but its tax-exempt legal status remained intact. The revived foundation was hitched to Gingrich's political action committee, GOPAC, with which it shared office space and phones; he would later lie to ethics investigators about this illegal linkage. Gingrich proceeded to turn ALOF into another fund-raising vehicle, ostensibly for still more televised propaganda. Now it happens to be against the law to gut a tax-exempt nonprofit and turn it into something else entirely without consulting the IRS, and to compound matters, sources who worked for the organization told the congressional newspaper Roll Call that only a fraction of the $319,000 it raised actually went toward TV programming. Where the rest went, no one outside the Gingrich camp yet knows.

Now consider. Newt Gingrich is far from brilliant; he illustrates as well as anyone on Capitol Hill the difference between shrewdness, which mainly involves a reflexive flair for the opportunistic gesture, and real intelligence. But he is not dim enough to account for the baldness with which he broke laws and loped across ethical boundaries. The pattern of Newt's actions betray a bedrock conviction that the rule of law and the light of public scrutiny are as nothing compared to the immutable power of money. As most people now know, this generally holds true. Newt himself has long done business this way, with minimal consequences; in previous encounters with the ethics committee he has been found guilty of, among other things, allowing a campaign contributor into his office to help draft legislation pertinent to the donor's industry. But there are still limits to what the public will abide and--just as important--what the media can bury under great mounds of cant.

As the Gingrich and Clinton campaign money scandals continue to unfold, there will be the inevitable arguments about whose transgressions have been worse. The point we would do well to remember is that they are fundamentally the same. In a poetic bit of bipartisanship, the two most prominent elected officials in the federal government both broke laws and sold access with a seeming lack of circumspection that is hard to imagine in politics a generation or even a decade ago. It's the unselfconsciousness of Clinton and Gingrich, their matter-of-fact blindness to the interests and prejudices of all but the best cash customers of consumer democracy, that tells the tale. What they have done is so patently a part of the game that they seem to have forgotten that one is even supposed to pretend otherwise.

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