Newt's big buck

January 06, 1995|By Frank Rich

SAY IT AIN'T so, Al. No sooner does Newt Gingrich give up an unseemly $4.5 million advance from HarperCollins and settle instead for a token $1 than another publisher, Hyperion, announces the August publication of "Enough Is Enough: Pasta, Potholes, and Other Things Worth Fighting For," by Sen. Al D'Amato, R-N.Y.

As HarperCollins is owned by a media magnate, Rupert Murdoch, who has dealings before Congress, so Hyperion is owned by Disney, which may seek to curry favor on the Hill should it go through with its threat to revive the Disney's America theme park.

The senator's editor at Hyperion, Brian DeFiore, denies a quid pro quo. Did Mr. D'Amato get a $4.5 million advance? After he stopped laughing, Mr. DeFiore replied: "We certainly paid him more than $1 and we certainly paid him less than $4.5 million -- it's closer to the former than the latter."

And what exactly does the book say about pasta? "He's very fond of it, and his mother makes a damn good one." But no recipes will be forthcoming unless we plunk down our $22.95, as much as 15 percent of which will line the senator's pockets.

Both "Enough Is Enough," for which Hyperion has best-selling hopes, and "To Renew America," Mr. Gingrich's tome, are ethical by congressional rules and by precedents long predating "Profiles in Courage."

Yet it's typical of the slippery terms of the debate over Newt's millions that Bob Dole, the most vocal Republican to question the speaker's deal, turns out to be the author of the D'Amato book's introduction.

Now that the curtain has risen on the momentous 104th Congress, that debate is receding, and by bipartisan consensus has reached a happy conclusion: Mr. Gingrich will no longer be exploiting his new position for ostentatious gain.

Perhaps. Troubling issues linger, though not necessarily the ones raised in the pitch of controversy last week. The issues have less to do with Mr. Gingrich's inalienable right to sell his literary wares or with the prospects of his peddling influence for Mr. Murdoch than with what Republicans like to call values.

Indeed, Mr. Murdoch, whose dealings with the Federal Communications Commission will now receive more scrutiny than ever, is arguably the biggest loser in this affair. The speaker, however, is not: He may still make $4.5 million -- or at least $3 million, in the estimation of publishing hands. He will simply collect his cash more quietly, over several tax years.

On his way to payday, Mr. Gingrich revealed that he is both greedy and hypocritical.

Greedy because, by his own account in an interview with Brian Lamb on C-Span over the weekend, he overthrew a projected $2 million deal for his book -- a deal prematurely announced at a HarperCollins sales conference in early December -- after his best-selling friends William Bennett and Alvin Toffler urged him to go for broke.

Hypocritical because Mr. Gingrich, who made his name by attacking congressional Democrats for cashing in on their power, has suddenly decided that the issue is moot when applied to him.

Asked by Mr. Lamb in light of the book brouhaha "how much" public cynicism about elected officials "is related to their personal gain from public service," Mr. Gingrich replied flatly: "I don't think much."

Given the speaker's inconsistency on that question, will he put his money where his (and the GOP's) mouth is and help replace federal spending with his own private charity? According to the conservative columnist Robert Novak, "friends and defenders say" that Mr. Gingrich will give "much" of his millions "to charity, perhaps Boys Town." Wanna bet?

And who will write his putative best-seller? Jack McKeown of HarperCollins insists the book will not be a ghost-written, cut-and-paste rehash of Mr. Gingrich's lectures but "a very personal book, an original work," due in June for fall publication.

But hasn't the speaker promised marathon 20-hour congressional sessions, weekends included, to advance his agenda?

As the $4.5 million misunderstanding fades into history, the battle between the Contract With America and the far more lucrative contract with HarperCollins for Mr. Gingrich's time and soul may have only just begun.

Frank Rich is a columnist for the New York Times.

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