A Combative Gingrich On Campaign Finance

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Speakers of the House seem to like to pour cold water on major legislation while talking to reporters at the Monitor's breakfast forum.

Speaker Tom Foley put an end to the president and Mrs. Clinton's hopes for a national health insurance package by telling us - reluctantly and unhappily, of course - that he simply couldn't dredge up enough votes in the House to put that ambitious plan into law. It was the first time he had admitted defeat for what was the president's chief effort to bring about major and historic change. After Mr. Foley spoke, the administration, too, had to throw in the towel.

And now, on the eve of the Senate debate over campaign-finance reform, Speaker Newt Gingrich came to breakfast and asserted that the major reform bill being advanced in the Senate - McCain-Feingold - could not possibly pass the House. Gingrich's words certainly foretold bad days for the McCain-Feingold concept of campaign reform, if it gets as far as the House.

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The only kind of campaign reform bill that Gingrich would favor, he told us, would be one that would lift all existing limits on political contributions and would require quick and full disclosure. It is completely counter to McCain-Feingold, which puts its main focus on banning "soft money," the unlimited and unregulated gifts to political parties.

It was a rather combative Newt Gingrich who met with us the other day. To be sure, his mood was jovial as, on arrival, he carried in a candle-covered cake and balloons to honor one of the newsmen. And he was full of smiles and good humor. But he almost immediately let us know that he hadn't said goodbye to spirited contention when someone asked him if he thought Clinton's victory in '96 was legitimate. In response, Gingrich compared Clinton to Teamster Union President Ron Carey, saying: "Does anybody seriously think he [Clinton] would have won if he obeyed the law?"

Continuing, Gingrich said, "This is not some small trivial thing about phone calls in the White House. There was a pattern of illegality and illegitimacy throughout the campaign."

The reporter pressed on: "Do you think it taints the White House?"

Gingrich: "You tell me."

The reporter: "Do you think you are working with an illegally elected president?"

Gingrich: "I am working with people who on a routine basis were willing to have subordinates who broke the law."

Reporter: "Do you regard him as a legitimately elected president?"

Gingrich: "Every passing week we learn more things about more illegalities."

Reporter: "Do you think the president stole the election?"

Gingrich: "You cannot explain what America would have been like without 120,000 ads, many of them paid for illegally and coordinated illegally. You can't, so who knows?"

I'm one of those observers - getting fewer in numbers of late - who still believes that Gingrich hasn't given up the idea of running for president in 2000. Yes, I'm aware of his unpopularity - "down where he's just above the unpopularity of Prince Charles," pollster Peter Hart quipped the other morning. When told of this, Newt laughed, too, and said it would probably take "three, four, or five years" for him to come out from under this widespread public disfavor. He blames his plight on those "poisonous" attack ads that were aimed at him.

But there's a special quality in Newt that even his foes, grudgingly, concede. He's almost awesomely resilient. You can see it as he bounces in to meet with people - even when you know his heart must be sinking over stingingly critical judgments being rendered on his own deportment. He still must be hurting over his brush with the ethics committee - and the fine he has to pay. But he never loses that spring in his step, that almost joyful approach of his, come what may. So, unlikely as it now seems, he just might decide to run for president.

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