Republicans need an attack dog who's not tainted with scandal

May 04, 1998|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON -- The most recent Republican allegations that President Clinton and other Democrats have been collaborating in a cover-up of 1995-96 campaign fund-raising excesses certainly merits serious examination, in light of White House foot-dragging on providing congressionally sought information and documents.

But the aggressive and characteristically hyperbolic airing of those allegations by House Speaker Newt Gingrich demonstrates once again why he continues to be exactly the wrong GOP leader to make them.

In this case as in many others, it is his style to identify the activity he rails against as the worst crime ever to come down the pike, and to do so when he himself is such ethically damaged goods.

Mr. Gingrich, it seems, never met an adjective expressing extreme behavior that he didn't like. Apparently forgetting the infamous Watergate affair, he observed the other day that "what you have lived through for two and a half years is the most systematic, deliberate obstruction of justice, cover-up and effort avoid the truth we have ever seen in American history."

That judgment would surely give pause to the former members of the House Judiciary Committee, Democrats and Republicans alike, who voted three articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon in 1974, charging him with obstruction of justice, abuse of presidential power and attempting to impede the impeachment process itself.

Nixon knew by then that he was a cooked goose and he resigned shortly thereafter, pressured by leaders of his own party who told him point-blank that the jig was up.

The allegations against Mr. Clinton, while serious enough, have not generated anything like the same pressure, with most Democrats in Congress still backing him or maintaining an uncomfortable silence.

But it is not Mr. Gingrich's penchant for magnifying the dimensions of whatever he talks about that makes him a vulnerable attack dog for his party. It is his own checkered ethical past that inevitably draws the old street-corner retort: Look who's talking.

The veteran award-winning cartoonist Herblock in the Washington Post summed it up in a pithy offering last week showing two men discussing with Mr. Gingrich the GOP's "plans to hear charges against Clinton." Behind Mr. Gingrich a sign on the wall said "Jan. 1997 -- House lets Gingrich off with reprimand and $300,000 cost assessment" -- referring to the penalty Congress voted against him for various ethical abuses. The cartoon caption read: "If he's committed misdeeds, how about if we give him the same deal you got?"

Although public-opinion polls indicate that Mr. Gingrich's standing with voters since his reported self-re-evaluation is considerably higher than it was at the time of his troubles with the House Ethics Committee, it is still sorry for a party leader. In the latest Gallup Poll, just as many voters say they don't like him as say they do.

Speculation that he intends to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2000 is as likely as not to draw snickers on Main Street.

All this suggests that if, after months of holding back in criticism of Mr. Clinton about the allegations of sexual misconduct against him, the Republican Party is going to take the gloves off on that matter as well as his campaign finance practices, Mr. Gingrich is hardly its ideal point man.

Nor, certainly, is Rep. Dan Burton, chairman of the House committee investigating the Clinton-Gore campaign's free-wheeling fund-raising activities in 1995-96, who demonstrated his cool-headedness and even-handedness by calling the president a "scumbag" -- a word in earlier days confined to men's locker rooms that now easily clears the lowered bar of public discourse and journalistic respectability.

The Republicans' frustration at Mr. Clinton's ability to slip the noose they'd like to put around his neck is understandable. But ** they'd be a lot better off finding an executioner who hasn't only recently escaped the rope himself.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 5/04/98

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