Strange Bedfellow

Hostage Swap: Hillary for Newt

A way out of the scandal morass.

By Jacob Weisberg

In the old days, corruption was something average folk could understand. A politician took a bribe, or stole votes, or broke into someone’s office and looked at their stuff. Lately, it’s been a bit more complicated. You need a degree in accounting–with a minor in tax law–to comprehend what the average Washington scandal is all about.

It’s possible that politicians have just become more sophisticated in their modes of venality. But the stronger case, I think, is that ethical standards have risen to the point where what would have seemed like petty corner-cutting a short time ago now rates as career-threatening malfeasance. Within modern memory, cash has changed hands on the floor of the House, and elections in places like Chicago and San Antonio have been seriously rigged. In 1997, Newt Gingrich may lose his job as speaker for such infractions as using congressional office equipment for the benefit of his political organization and failing to observe the niceties of tax-exempt 501 (c) (3) status. If the Internal Revenue Service catches a private citizen doing this, he or she gets a warning. Even repeat offenders only risk losing their tax exemption.

Don’t get me wrong–Newt did things he shouldn’t have done, the most serious of which is lying, or whatever euphemism you prefer, to the House Ethics Committee about the aforementioned dark deeds. But, like most of the scandals visited on the Clintons, Newt’s crimes are minor and hopelessly obscure. Both Whitewater and Gingrichgate are examples of the kind of scandal where you spend most of your time trying to figure out what exactly the wrongdoers did wrong, and never quite succeeding. They involve largely trivial offenses, ginned into sweeping allegations by political enemies who have, in most cases, cut comparable corners in their own careers. Recently, House Republicans have threatened to retaliate by reviving yet another set of incomprehensible allegations about House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt’s summer house, charges that Republicans practically admit are ridiculous. Scandal has devolved into a game of reciprocal hostage-taking–the continuation of politics by other means.

Minor-scandal mongering is not only a distraction from important issues and a breeder of political cynicism. It threatens to debase the idea of ethics itself to the point where the public won’t recognize a genuine scandal when one comes along. It has also become an exercise in futility. The violations in these cases aren’t serious enough to end careers, but there’s no way to dispose of them, either.

T he solution is an ethics amnesty. Here’s the deal: Democrats agree to stop complaining about Gingrich. Republicans agree to quit persecuting the Clintons over Whitewater, the travel office, and Indogate. (We’ll leave out Paula Jones, which is a different matter–and which, in any case, is in the courts and out of GOP hands.) The deal I’m talking about would be an informal, domestic SALT II, a bargain in which both sides commit to settling their differences with conventional weapons. Both parties should admit they have sinned, and both should quit throwing stones–or, more precisely, handfuls of tiny pebbles–at each other. Such a deal would be a way of saying that both Clinton and Gingrich are guilty of misbehavior, but we’re just going to stop arguing about whose misbehavior is worse and which elements may or may not have been illegal. The deal would implicitly note that both men have already been punished by public humiliation and been rehabilitated by the voters who re-elected them in November.

The deal would be predicated on a rough moral equivalency in the two cases. In fact, the symmetry is more than rough–it’s bizarrely close. Of the 70 accusations leveled by Democratic Whip David Bonior, the only ones sustained by the Ethics Committee had to do with the financing of Newt’s college course, “Renewing American Civilization.” Bonior claims the course should not have accepted tax-deductible contributions because it was a political effort, connected to Newt’s other, nonexempt front organizations. Well, of course “Renewing American Civilization” was political. But so are lots of other outfits that benefit from “educational” tax status–Greenpeace, the Economic Policy Institute (with which Bonior is associated), and the Heritage Foundation, to name just a few. Newt was skirting a rule that is widely skirted. He may have crossed the fuzzy line separating merely political activity from electoral campaign activity. But despite what Bonior says, this is not comparable to the Jim Wright case. Wright gained personally from his scheme, which was to sell a book, which no one wanted, in massive quantities as a way of dunning “friends” for money that went into his own pocket. (Newt had a book deal too, of course–but that was a real book, brought out by a commercial publisher trying to make money on it. I don’t think politicians should cash in on their celebrity until their careers are over–but the House rules at the time permitted Newt to do what he did.)

W hat you can compare the Newt affair to is Indogate. Both are essentially scandals born of partial campaign-finance reform. Because candidates aren’t allowed to collect unlimited, unregulated money from anyone they want, they exploit various loopholes in campaign law. As in the tax code, the existence of recondite exceptions has created a whole industry based on evasion. Newt Inc., as the speaker’s Byzantine political conglomeration of interlocking organizations has been called, is essentially a vehicle for working around campaign-finance rules in order to violate the spirit of the law–exactly what John Huang was doing on behalf of the Democratic National Committee. You can condemn this behavior, but the rules have never been seriously enforced in the past, and unless we find a way to reform the entire system of political finance (no easy matter short of a constitutional amendment), it will be close to impossible to crack the whip.

The more serious charge against both the Clintons and Gingrich is that they compounded their minor infractions by deceiving the authorities about them. In both cases, the key issue is lying to Congress–Newt to the Ethics Committee about GOPAC’s involvement with his college course, and Hillary Clinton to the General Accounting Office (which is an arm of Congress) about her role in the travel-office scandal. Newt and Hillary are both too savvy for us to write these incidents off as oversights. But even if they were blatant, knowing lies, they were lies for spin, not lies to hide serious crimes. They were examples of politicians, who are not in the habit of telling the whole truth, getting caught out. Both should be ashamed of themselves. But in neither case does the deception amount to a cover-up or an obstruction of justice, as in, for instance, Bob Packwood’s falsification of the diaries he handed over to the Ethics Committee. Both Newt’s lie and Hillary’s lie were, in truth, pretty transparent.

Democrats would be crazy not to move for an amnesty while they momentarily have the upper hand. Never murder your enemy, goes the saying, while he is in the process of committing suicide. Newt, with his bullying and arrogant manner, can be counted on to continue committing suicide on behalf of his party so long as he sits in the speaker’s chair. This will be doubly true with a permanent ethics cloud swirling over his head. That’s why shrewd conservatives like William Safire and Robert Bork want Newt to do the honorable thing. Bonior should look at who his allies are and reconsider his strategy.

For Republicans, the Gingrich scandal is an infuriating distraction. “Every day, very serious revelations are coming out on Clinton, and we’re totally incapable of taking advantage of them,” Christopher Shays, a Connecticut Republican, said recently. “In the public eye, these things become equal.” Maybe they’re equal; maybe they’re not. Plenty of Democrats would say Newt’s misbehavior is worse. It’s not an elevating argument, and both parties would be better off putting it aside.