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).
Gingrich and Clinton’s common gift is to divert attention with reams of rhetoric while sacrificing everyone and everything that endangers their careers. These two men engender such diffuse cynicism that the public is losing the ability to focus on ethical corruption. But if other leaders stepped forward to declare that it’s no longer acceptable for the highest officials to hide contributions and sell favors, then Americans might reclaim their right to elect “honest” representatives.
I put “honest” in quotes because the word itself is in play. As a culture, we’re fighting for control of the word’s meaning. Was it dishonest for Congressman McDermott to give the press tapes of the Republican leadership’s conference call strategizing how to defeat the ethics process? Newt & Co. would have had us believe that this was a much more crucial moral issue than the contents of the call itself, which captured Newt participating in precisely the type of attack on the ethics process he’d forsworn that very day as part of his plea bargain.
Yet the Republicans succeeded in keeping the Democrats on the defensive. Though reprimanded and fined, Newt held on to his job and kept his prime-time exposure to a minimum. Why? Because Republican pressure met with Democratic ambivalence. In fact, Minority Leader Dick Gephardt helped orchestrate all aspects of the Gingrich deal, including McDermott’s recusal. The Democrats lack the deep cohesion necessary to sustain counterattack for at least two reasons: First, they don’t want the Republicans to turn the ethical spotlight on them. (Of course the GOP will do so anyway.) And second, they want to embarrass Newt but not to oust him, rationalizing that they will have more leverage against a wounded speaker.
Meanwhile, because Newt escaped this ethics battle without losing the speakership, in his mind he’s vindicated. According to Newt’s authoritarian logic, if you’re not thrown out of office, then you didn’t do anything terrible. For its part, the House has endorsed as its speaker someone who believes that lying under oath to colleagues is of limited consequence. By declaring that Newt’s brazen, repeated violation of our charitable tax codes isn’t worthy of expulsion, Washington has broadcast its belief that lawmakers are above the law.
President Clinton, of course, lobbied for Gingrich to survive as speaker in the hope that the same lack of ethical standards will prevail when his own fundraising scandals move onto center stage. But the president was re-elected in large part because when Gingrich shut down the government, Clinton stood up to the bully. Right now the electorate wants others to stand up to the leadership of both parties. The public wants nonpartisan reform, not bipartisan corruption. They don’t care if the reformers who demand this are Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or progressives. Those who insist that our government no longer be up for sale will emerge as heroes and political pioneers.