The story line in the Republican presidential sweepstakes is that, unlike the ephemeral pack leaders who preceded him, Newt Gingrich has staying power because people already know all his warts and transgressions and have either accepted or forgiven them.
Don’t bet on it. Everywhere but in the South, which has a fabled history of accepting and forgiving philanderers, rascals and highbinders if they are colorful enough, Gingrich is apt to fall harder than the rest.
With the help of his opponents and the media, Newt now is coming back to them slowly.
It is coming back to us here in Arkansas, where for a dozen years our men in Washington had a close but not always proud association with the former House minority whip and speaker.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette helped bring it back a little by politely interviewing three Republican congressmen from the state who served with him, Tommy Robinson, Tim Hutchinson and Jay Dickey. Hutchinson and Dickey were around for Gingrich’s epochal collisions with President Clinton over the budget and the shutdown of the federal government in 1995-96 and Clinton’s impeachment, which Gingrich helped engineer. They spoke politely of Gingrich although Hutchinson and Dickey are against him because they say he isn’t a conservative.
But Robinson was sore that people made so much of Gingrich’s foolishness with women: the serial adulteries, his $500,000 line of credit at Tiffany jewelers and his and his wife Callista’s recent Mediterranean cruise.
“He’s not running for sainthood,” Robinson said.
You might expect Robinson, who runs a liquor store at Brinkley, to be mad at Gingrich. Remember that Robinson and the rest of the Arkansas House delegation were big check-kiters at the House bank. Robinson, it would turn out, wrote 996 hot checks in 39 months, which made him No. 1 in the Congress. Gingrich wrote them, too, including a $9,463 hot check to the IRS to pay his taxes in 1990.
But Gingrich saw that since the Democrats had a 100-vote majority in the House and more overdrafts the issue would hurt them more than Republicans. So he pushed to have all the overdrafts made public and investigated by a special counsel. That’s when Robinson’s incredible total became public.
Gingrich was right politically. He survived his own check-kiting scandal back home by 980 votes, but 77 other House members, mostly Democrats, bit the dust. The GOP took control in 1995 and made Gingrich speaker.
He quickly feuded with Clinton over funding Medicare, education and pollution abatement. He got the House to shut the government down in the late fall and winter of 1995-96. Gingrich figured that since that they had convinced people that the federal government was bad, voters would rejoice at its shutdown. He didn’t reckon on their wrath and he sought a reconciliation with Clinton to end the crisis and save Republicans.
Gingrich had made it worse by complaining that the wily Arkansan had ignored him on an Air Force One flight to Israel for the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin and that he had been told to exit from the rear of the plane. That snub, he explained to reporters, was “part of why you ended up with us sending down a tougher continuing resolution” and closing the government. Even Republican colleagues were aghast at the childish petulance.
That may be why Jay Dickey, the former Pine Bluff congressman, was so uncharitable. When Dickey refused to go along with Gingrich on his surrender to Clinton on ending the government shutdown, Gingrich paid him back by not showing up for his scheduled speech at Dickey’s fundraiser. People felt sorry for their humiliated congressman and re-elected him.
Then there was all the other ethics stuff, which finally drove Gingrich out of government. Faced with 84 ethics charges against him, the House Ethics Committee — half Republicans and half Democrats — voted 6 to 1 in 1997 to recommend sanctions by the House. The House voted 395-28 to censure and fine him for ethical wrongdoing, principally a shady book deal, claiming tax-exempt status for a college course he ran for political purposes and lies about them.
One of our own figured in that, too. Gingrich’s chief defense lawyer was Ed Bethune, the former congressman from Searcy and Little Rock. Bethune had been a tough former prosecutor, but he couldn’t beat the rap for the speaker in the Ethics Committee. The next day, Bethune, Gingrich, the present speaker, John Boehner, and several others were on a conference call plotting an attack in the House on the Ethics Committee’s charges in clear violation of Gingrich’s and Bethune’s agreement with the Ethics Committee. A vacationing couple happened to pick up the phone signals on their police radio, taped the conversation and handed it to a Democratic congressmen, who shared it with reporters.
Everything headed downhill pell mell. Facing a massive revolt in his own party, Gingrich resigned his congressional job and his leadership of the Republicans after their defeat in 1998, explaining that he was not willing “to preside over people who are cannibals.”
Cannibals! The memories are why Republican stalwarts everywhere — outside the forgiving South, of course — are not going to let Newt be in charge of their fate again.