Newt Gingrich had a pretty good day last week. He was reelected Speaker, though just barely. That made him happy, I'm sure. At the same time, he lost his right-hand man, Tony Blankley.
Erudite, gentlemanly, likable Tony Blankley may have been the best press secretary who ever walked the halls of Congress. He was remarkably skillful at softening Mr. Gingrich's hard image. For a number of years he has steered Newt away from trouble and has often done a masterful job at attempting to extricate the congressman from messes he had caused with heated, controversial words.
When Mr. Blankley came to a Monitor breakfast the morning after the vote on the speakership, he had said goodbye to Newt only a few hours before. Where was he headed? He didn't know yet, he said. He joshed that he might, after some 40 years, renew his career in Hollywood, where he had been a child actor. Would he write a book or become a political analyst on TV? He said he was taking some time off to think about his next move.
But Tony was still putting a Gingrich-tilted spin on events. He told us that his old boss would not - despite many forecasts to the contrary - be forced to play second-fiddle to others in Congress. He said Newt would still be able to lead the Republican contingent toward conservative goals and would continue to be the "intellectual leader" of Congress.
But, Blankley was asked, hadn't his boss been severely wounded by the ethics charges lodged against him? Wouldn't this impair his speakership? "No," Blankley replied, adding that all that Newt had done was "appear" to have made some mistakes. He said it was this "appearance" of wrongdoing - and not any actual wrongdoing - that Newt was apologizing for in his speech the day before.
NEWT'S Democratic critics say he defrauded the taxpayers for his own political advancement and then lied to the ethics committee when questioned about it. Gingrich and Blankley deny these allegations. While Blankley concedes that Gingrich should have shown better judgment in his actions that brought about these ethics charges, he adds that Newt has come out of the experience a wiser man.
Indeed, Blankley's view - or spin, if you will - is that Gingrich has learned so much from dealing with these charges that he will be stronger as a man and a political leader. Blankley even said he saw in what many people still view as a beleaguered and weakened Speaker a public servant who will "emerge as a statesman."
At one point I asked Blankley: "After doing so much to bring about the ouster of Jim Wright as Speaker for violation of ethics, shouldn't Gingrich have realized he, as Speaker, should be particularly careful to avoid even the appearance of doing wrong?" Blankley agreed that Gingrich should have known he would be held to that higher standard and, again, faulted Newt for bad judgment.
I have always believed that our public servants not only must avoid doing wrong or committing improprieties but also avoid appearances of such activity. It's a high, difficult standard but one that all government workers, and particularly our leaders, should apply to their conduct. I don't know - in fact, I even doubt - that Newt actually knew he was doing wrong when he used tax-exempt funds for what might be regarded as political purposes, or that he was aware he had provided false information about his conduct to the House ethics committee.
But I strongly criticize the Speaker for not guarding his actions so that he would not be seen by others as appearing to have been involved in improper activity. Blankley would seem to excuse Gingrich's appearances of wrongdoing as being no more than "bad judgment." I see them as more than that - as unacceptable conduct for which the Speaker must be held responsible.