Gingrich wasn't destined to be great

August 31, 1999|By Jay Bookman

NEWT Gingrich's political future was cloudy at best after his resignation as House speaker and congressman. Now it seems all but over. News of his impending divorce -- his second -- and allegations of a lengthy affair with a 33-year-old congressional aide have rendered him unelectable to any post substantial enough to hold his interest.

News of his affair has exposed Mr. Gingrich to charges of hypocrisy, not to mention a substantial bit of snickering. Some of that's deserved. The man who decried what he called "a multicultural, nihilistic hedonism that is inherently destructive of a healthy society," and who blamed liberals for Woody Allen's affair with his stepdaughter and for Susan Smith's murder of her two children, can't expect much sympathy when the chickens come to roost on his own bedpost.

However, on the most specific and damaging charge of hypocrisy -- that Mr. Gingrich was bashing President Clinton for immorality even while he himself carried on with a House employee -- the issue is a little more complicated. Because even as other Republicans were calling Mr. Clinton everything up to and including rapist, Mr. Gingrich largely refrained.

The record of that period instead reveals Mr. Gingrich struggling with a deeply personal dilemma. As a politician, he needed to criticize Mr. Clinton and make the most of the opportunity the president had given him, if for no other reason than to satisfy his own conservative supporters. But as a human being, he could not condemn Mr. Clinton without also condemning himself.

Not on the attack

At the time, the speaker's reticence about Mr. Clinton had already begun to perplex many conservatives. They were wondering out loud why their favorite attack dog had fallen silent.

So in an April 27, 1998, speech before members of GOPAC, the political action committee that had helped to put him in the speaker's chair, Mr. Gingrich also pledged that "I will never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on [the Lewinsky scandal]." He kept that promise for about a week, and even then he focused on Mr. Clinton's disrespect for the rule of law, not his sexual behavior.

Within the Republican hierarchy, at least some of Mr. Gingrich's colleagues must have understood what was going on; even back then, rumors were circulating that the speaker was having an affair with a House aide.

But those in the know couldn't exactly explain their leader's predicament to the Republican rank and file that was screaming for Mr. Clinton's head. And eventually, while Mr. Gingrich never did attack Mr. Clinton on personal terms, he did capitulate privately to those who wanted all-out war against the president.

For example, after release of the salacious report submitted by independent counsel Kenneth Starr to Congress, the American public responded with anger at those who thought such material germane to public debate.

The Starr report

Within the Republican House caucus, some moderate members wanted to withhold additional supporting material submitted by Mr. Starr, which contained tawdry details about cigars and other matters. Despite his belief that "such a level of detail . . . is grotesque and demeaning," Mr. Gingrich caved in and agreed to make the report public.

Again, just before the November election, Mr. Gingrich personally approved $10 million in TV ads lambasting Mr. Clinton for his affair with Ms. Lewinsky. That move also backfired, contributing to GOP losses in the House and eventually leading to Mr. Gingrich's resignation.

The irony is, Mr. Gingrich had been right. The public didn't want its nose rubbed in the dirty details of its president's personal life, and it came to resent those who insisted on doing so.

If Mr. Gingrich had stayed true to his own principles, if he had resisted those in his party willing to use any means necessary to destroy Mr. Clinton, he could have saved himself, his party and his country a lot of pain.

To gain and keep power, Mr. Gingrich chose to say things that he knew weren't true, and to say them with apparent heartfelt sincerity. It was a tragic choice on his part, particularly given his oft-expressed admiration for people such as Winston Churchill and Ronald Reagan.

Churchill, Mr. Reagan and other Gingrich heroes had a strong inner core. They believed in certain things, and they did not alter those beliefs even when self-betrayal might have brought them advantage or saved them pain. That trait defined their greatness. Mr. Gingrich understood that, but he proved incapable of emulating it.

As a result, he never achieved the greatness he saw as his destiny.

Jay Bookman is associate editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution.

Pub Date: 8/31/99

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