WASHINGTON — House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), defending the publication of the book that has helped vault him into the realm of presidential politics, said Sunday that he will seek an open hearing of the House Ethics Committee investigating the propriety of the publishing deal he struck with media mogul Rupert Murdoch.
Gingrich, speaking on CBS-TV's "Face the Nation" news show, showed some initial resistance to pressing for open hearings on his book deal, suggesting that there was no precedent for it. When reminded that an ethics probe, instigated by Gingrich, into House Speaker Jim Wright's book deal had been conducted in open session, Gingrich quickly agreed, saying: "I had forgotten that. Let me talk to the Ethics Committee people." Wright, a Texas Democrat, resigned in 1989 after the probe.
Gingrich called the charges of impropriety, on which both he and Murdoch have been called to testify next week, "phony," adding, "I think it's going to be fairly hard even for the nuttier elements of the Democratic Party to make much of this.
"I have no problem with this being out in the open, because I think this is such a clear-cut example of absolutely professional, correct behavior," Gingrich said.
The ethics charges stem from Gingrich's initial decision to accept a $4.5-million advance for the publication of two books by HarperCollins, a publishing house controlled by Murdoch.
Gingrich quickly abandoned the arrangement, agreeing to a $1 advance and a share of book sales instead when the deal drew charges from both Democrats and Republicans that he was using his role as Speaker for personal financial gain and that he could be guilty of a conflict of interest for accepting so much money from a businessman directly affected by legislation before Congress. Murdoch has often been seen as getting kid-gloves treatment from Congress on such issues as tax breaks and foreign ownership rules.
Despite Gingrich's decision to give up the advance, the House Ethics Committee decided to probe the publishing deal anyway and has announced it will call both Gingrich and Murdoch to testify in closed session.
Gingrich said Sunday that his new book, "To Renew America," "really does outline where I think we need to go." He confirmed he would consider a presidential bid if its ideas are not embraced by GOP contenders with a good prospect of winning the White House. Because of the possibility such a "vacuum" could develop, Gingrich said, "there is no reason in the short run for me to say anything about closing a door" to a presidential bid before Dec. 15, the deadline for candidates to file papers on their intentions to participate in the New Hampshire primary.
Gingrich also urged the Clinton Administration not to withdraw most-favored-nation status from China in response to that country's arrest of dissident Harry Wu. He argued that the United States should extend full diplomatic recognition to Taiwan instead, a prospect bitterly fought by the Chinese.
And with House hearings on the 1993 siege of the Branch Davidian compound near Waco, Tex., imminent, the Speaker rejected arguments that a congressional probe of the incident will cast federal law enforcement officials as villains and downplay the excesses of militia groups.
In cases of allegations that "the power of the state is being used to harm Americans, you have a very different standard to meet," Gingrich said. "Because the government has to be the good guys."
He also faulted Democrats, who controlled Congress at the time of the siege, for their failure to conduct an investigation, calling it "dereliction of duty." The Waco standoff began with the deaths of four federal agents and ended in the deaths of 85 members of the religious cult. It has fueled animosity toward federal agents on the part of many groups and individuals. Among them is Timothy J. McVeigh, the man charged in the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19.
Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, speaking Sunday on ABC's "This Week With David Brinkley," said that the government has already submitted an "extraordinary report" on the Waco incident and cautioned that congressional hearings could stir further violence if they are not conducted carefully.
"All you need to do is look at the extremist literature to get a sense of how the hearings can be used to distort Waco in such a way as to undermine law enforcement, and to roll back the Brady bill and the assault weapon ban, and to take attention away from the militia and extremist groups and even feed paranoias," Rubin said.
Rubin said congressional requests for the personnel records of all government employees involved in the 1993 raid are inappropriate and should not be honored.
Rep. Bill Zeliff (R-N.H.), chairman of a House subcommittee on government reform and oversight, defended the hearings Sunday. Saying they will not be a "witch hunt," Zeliff urged the Clinton Administration to cooperate.