During the Vietnam War, we reached a point where political attempts at containing the fallout were bound to fail. The exposure of Newt Gingrich's tax schemes and the impending investigations of President Clinton's fundraising represent early defining moments in a comparable crisis for democracy: the decisive influence of money over government. Both Gingrich and the president have engaged in massive damage control of their respective scandals, but at some point reality must overwhelm those efforts and open the door for a new breed of politician: one who embraces clean fundraising as the minimum requirement of a democracy.
In a performance that would put to shame the most skilled contortionist, the Republicans in charge of the ethics circus succeeded in minimizing Newt's public moment of truth. But this is Newt's, and hence his troupe's, special gift: the ability to shame others while displaying near absolute shamelessness.
Still, at the House Ethics Committee hearing, the special counsel coolly analyzed Newt's multiyear pattern of reckless disregard of basic fundraising laws and of the simple truth. What was the speaker's excuse for his repeated violations? For two years he called all the charges "bizarre." Then, when confronted with the thoroughly documented case against him, he said his lawyer did it. His lawyer then quit, raising the possibility that he could be used as a witness against Gingrich. So, Newt said his lawyer didn't do it, his lawyer's first-year associate did.
Even as Newt professed, frankly, to be sorry for the controversy his brash behavior caused, he and his chief lieutenants dismissed the whole ethics investigation as a vicious partisan attack. His second lawyer then offered some 25 separate "contextualizations" under the apologetic banner that Newt was so busy saving American civilization he didn't notice that he had given conflicting excuses in writing to the investigative subcommittee. Newt so lacks shame that he claims "divine guidance" has now led him to decide to bring together all Americans -- poor and rich, black and white -- to heal as a nation.
Newt's main rival in shamelessness lives at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. As befits the president's "I Feel My Pain" mode, he has also pardoned himself for crimes he swears he didn't commit. The Democratic National Committee -- over which he claims to have no control -- did it. They rented out the White House when Bill was at home but unaware. He, too, wants us to heal these painful, partisan wounds and get beyond our outrage at political scandals (especially his own).