Beyond the Newt Affair
Today the House of Representatives votes on retaining Newt Gingrich as Speaker. It's a vote that should have been postponed, pending a House ethics committee report that will detail findings regarding the Speaker's alleged misuse of money from tax-exempt private foundations for political purposes.
Was the foundation-supported college course taught by Mr. Gingrich a nonpartisan take on America's past and future, as he and his supporters say? Or was it a politically tinged presentation clearly intended to further his fortunes and his party's, as others aver?
Reasonable people on both sides of the aisle have arrived at contradictory answers to that question. But on another matter, whether the Speaker misled the ethics committee by feeding it incomplete and contradictory information, Gingrich himself concedes he erred - albeit unintentionally, he pleads.
The affair has left the Speaker ethically suspect nonetheless. At the least, his reinstallation in the nation's most powerful legislative position - second in line to the presidency - should have been delayed. An interim Speaker could have filled in.
Instead, most indications were that Gingrich will be returned to the Speaker's chair by the House Republican majority. This can't have been an easy decision for some Gingrich backers. They have to be concerned about taking on a little of the appearance of hypocrisy now challenging their leader, who rose to notice with his successful attack on the ethics of a former Speaker, Democrat Jim Wright.
But Republicans' reasons for sticking with Newt are politically unvarnished: He is the visionary who engineered their great victory of 1994 and who forged an agenda that swung government in a different direction. And, for the more moderate members of the Gingrich legion, he's a much better man to work with than his even more ideologically rigid chief lieutenants.
Still, a Speaker carrying ethical baggage is set to join a similarly burdened president. Together, these two men will either forge the much-talked-about bipartisan consensus on such issues as a balanced budget, or the partisanship fired by the ethics charges will undermine all efforts at cooperation.
Hanging darkly over these matters is public cynicism. Diligent clarification of the Gingrich case, and of the numerous Clinton and Democratic fund-raising ethical issues, will help dispel it. Equally important, the public needs reassurance that its business can still be effectively attended to in Washington, despite the ethical storms.