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Judgement Day

Gingrich Seems a Hypocrite, While Clinton Seems a Cynic

December 29, 1996|William Schneider | William Schneider, a contributing editor to Opinion, is a political analyst for CNN

WASHINGTON — If liberals had talk radio, Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) would be toast. And if Republicans had put up a more aggressive ticket, they might have defeated President Bill Clinton on the character issue.

But political realities being what they are, both men are likely to survive their ethics controversies. They're hoping to get a fresh start next month, when Gingrich will probably be reelected speaker on Jan. 7 and Clinton will be inaugurated for a second term on Jan. 20.

But they present tarnished images to a disillusioned public. The ethics controversies have revealed something new and startling about each man. That Gingrich is a hypocrite. And Clinton is a cynic.

In his carefully crafted plea-bargain with the House Ethics Committee, the speaker acknowledged his behavior "did not reflect creditably on the House." What about the speaker's admission, "in my name and over my signature, inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable statements were given to the committee"? An unfortunate mistake but no dishonor, his defenders claim. Gingrich's explanation: "I did not intend to mislead the committee." In other words, a mere oversight. The speaker was too busy making revolution to pay attention to the ethics investigation.

But the fact is, for more than two years, Gingrich defiantly and contemptuously denied all charges of wrongdoing--until last Saturday, when he sheepishly changed his tune.

For years, Gingrich has minimized the connections between his political-action committee, GOPAC, and his so-called education and charitable activities. The ethics investigation found otherwise. It found that GOPAC was deeply involved in "developing," "fund-raising" and "promotion" for Gingrich's course.

Gingrich's violation of House rules was not an inadvertent error. It was a systematic pattern of deception, carried out with hubris and defiance. This from a congressman who said in 1988, "The rules normally applied by the Ethics Committee to an investigation of a typical member are insufficient in an investigation of a speaker . . . . Clearly, this investigation has to meet a higher standard of public accountability." The investigation Gingrich referred to was that of Democratic Speaker Jim Wright.

Gingrich's hypocrisy is all the more shocking because he is not a typical politician. He cultivates the image of a true believer, the man who fights for a cause bigger than himself. It's the cause of "Renewing American Civilization," as he entitled his course. Gingrich was supposed to be nobler and purer than the typical politician out for himself.

Gingrich did lead his followers to the promised land. And, for that, he has earned not just gratitude, but support. That's crucial now, in his time of trouble. Gingrich is an ideological politician. He sees the world as "us" vs. "them." He pays a cost for that. "Them"--the Democrats--despise him, and voters see him as divisive and confrontational. But it also gives Gingrich a crucial advantage that's about to pay off.

He has a base. "Your base," Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) once said, "is the people who are with you when you're wrong." Ideological politicians like Edward M. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson and Ronald Reagan all had a base. When they made big mistakes--Chappaquiddick, "Hymietown," Iran-Contra--their base didn't abandon them. Unlike, say, Gary Hart or George Bush, who found nobody there when they got in trouble.

Gingrich is wrong. He admits it. But he most likely will remain speaker because House Republicans are his base. They're not abandoning him, despite his admission of fault and his negative public image. Indeed, Democrats are flabbergasted to see Gingrich's supporters rushing to the airwaves to defend him. Democrats never did that for Wright. They weren't his base.

Gingrich will survive, but he will never be the same public figure. Even though many criticized him for being outspoken and confrontational, few doubted his sincerity. Now that we know about his deliberate pattern of deception, few will accept his sincerity. It's like finding out Reagan engineered the whole Iran-Contra conspiracy. Reagan was accused of many things, but being a hypocrite was not one of them.

The revelations about Clinton are no less damaging, and for the same reason: They contradict his public image. Doubts about Clinton's honesty and integrity are nothing new. They've been around since the 1992 New Hampshire primary, when the charges of womanizing and draft-dodging first surfaced. This year, the "character issue" resurfaced as the GOP's major theme: "Bob Dole. A Better Man. For a Better America." The White House had a ready response: "We've already had that election."

They were right. Americans elected Clinton despite widespread doubts about his trustworthiness. In both elections, the reasons to vote for Clinton--essentially, the economy--were more compelling than the reasons to vote against him. Even the Whitewater investigations have done no major damage.

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