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Gingich Ethics Fight: “Public Blood Feud”

January 10, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now some analysis of the Gingrich story and other such matters by Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot. Paul, what is this all about?

PAUL GIGOT, Wall Street Journal: This is about what’s become something of a public blood feud. Jim, I mean, it’s not partisan bickering, merely partisan bickering. Two hundred years ago Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton got pistols and walked 50 paces and shot at each other. And I’m not so sure that they didn’t do it better, have a better idea than what we’re doing, which is to use the ethics laws to really have the most bitter kind of fight I’ve seen in Congress. I thought the John Tower fight was bad; I think this is worse.

JIM LEHRER: John Tower, former United States Senator, was nominated to be defense secretary by George Bush–

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: –and was lost in a confirmation thing in the Senate that was led by Sen. Sam Nunn. All right.

PAUL GIGOT: The Ethics Committee, when it was at the subcommittee level, with Porter Goss and Ben Cardin, managed to maintain–

JIM LEHRER: One a Republican, Goss is a Republican, Cardin’s a Democrat.

PAUL GIGOT: Of Florida and Maryland. And they managed to maintain a real bipartisan comedy and civility. Now that it’s been bumped up to the broader Ethics Committee for the judgment phase, for the–excuse me–for the penalty phase, what you have is total global thermonuclear war. I mean, they are just–it’s impossible to overestimate the poisonous feelings within that Ethics Committee.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, poison in the Ethics Committee?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I think the poison is in the House, Jim. It’s in the Congress. You can say bye-bye bipartisanship. I mean, it’s over. It was never–it died of borning. Very, very simply I mean I think that it didn’t begin 200 years ago nearly as much as it began 18 years ago. I mean, I think, I think the Speaker is the person who really began this whole process. There’s no question there are Democrats who are dying to see him, Newt Gingrich get a Newt Gingrich. This is a man who regularly used words as weapons, who called his opponents traitors, liars, corrupt, thugs, and words like that on a regular basis. I think–I think the Republicans have a real problem, and it’s a serious political problem that goes quite beyond, I think, this ethics fight.

If you think of the face of the Republican Party, for 12 years with Ronald Reagan, he was a happy warrior. It was somebody who disarmed his opponents with anecdotes, a mere Tip O’Neill complaining to me and other reporters–damn Reagan, you go back to Cambridge, he says Democrats, Irish Catholic Democrats might say, Tip, go easy on him, I like him. Ronald Reagan put a smile on Republican conservatism, and was more popular than the policies he advocated. All right. Newt Gingrich has put almost a sneer on conservatism. He is the face of the Republican Party right now. And he is less popular than the agenda that he champions. And I think it’s really–it’s been a tough week for Gingrich. It’s been a tough week for the House. Paul is absolutely right.

JIM LEHRER: But it’s–so it doesn’t have anything to do with whether Gingrich did anything right or wrong, whether or not the ethics rules have been violated, whether or not it all has to do with whether people like Newt Gingrich?

PAUL GIGOT: I believe at this stage it has nothing to do with the others. I think ethics doesn’t really matter anymore. If you look at the subcommittee report, it does not make a judgment about whether he violated tax law. It’s ambiguous on that point, and it does not say that he intentionally misled the committee, just that he misled it, and what is left open was for the Democrats to use the sound bite they’ve been using for the last three weeks, which is liar and tax cheat. And every time you see ‘em on TV, that’s what they use. Gingrich can’t defend himself because of a deal with the committee, so you’ve got Republicans fuming as this goes on and saying, wait a minute, this is about partisan politics, and we’ve got–and Jim McDermott is trying to march over Nancy Johnson. We’ve got to fight back, and that’s why the tensions are building.

MARK SHIELDS: I want to correct something, that he did not–this is more than about partisan politics. Partisan politics is the backdrop, the context, the atmosphere in which it’s breathed. The committee came in four-zip on the very day, 4-0, two Republicans, two Democrats, said Newt Gingrich had given untrue statements to that committee; that Newt Gingrich had, in fact, been violative or his policies had violated the tax laws.

PAUL GIGOT: And that’s not what it does.

MARK SHIELDS: Okay. Proceed from there. Proceed from there to the point where we’re now with Newt Gingrich in a self-imposed quarantine, having admitted his culpability to the House, having pledged to the committee he will not participate or orchestrate any sort of a–of undermining of their decision. And he’s on the phone. He’s on the phone with six other people saying this is how we’re going to do it.

JIM LEHRER: What about the phone call thing?

PAUL GIGOT: I read the Times piece. I didn’t think there was anything there. It was a smoking gun without any smoke and no gun.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the additional thing that a Democratic member of the House of Representatives took an illegal wire tap and gave it to a reporter, somebody’s going to–and now of course the, the Justice Department is looking into that? This thing could go on and on and on.

PAUL GIGOT: It could, and it does give the–give you a flavor for how nasty things are getting. I think there are two questions with the Times piece. One is the one you raised, which is, did somebody break the law? I think that’s–in these kinds of things with press leaks, we never get to the bottom of it. Somebody–

JIM LEHRER: Nobody breaks the law when you give something to a reporter. I forgot about that. Sorry.

MARK SHIELDS: The first rule.

PAUL GIGOT: But the second thing is: Did Gingrich violate his agreement with the Ethics Committee? I mean in the first part of the transcript you have Gingrich quoted as saying, “Does the special counsel, Cole, know, in fact, we are talking to the leadership?” In other words, he was informed that they were going to be making this consultation.

JIM LEHRER: You know, Mark, the Democrats–is this kind of a tie, as we sit here tonight? I mean, nobody’s looking very good in this, are they?

MARK SHIELDS: No. The one point on the phone call–Bryce Harlow, who is the wisest man–probably one of the wisest men I’ve ever known in Washington–Bryce Harlow was assistant to Gen. George Marshall during World War II, assistant to President Eisenhower, President Nixon, President Ford, just a brilliant man–he said never do anything–there’s one rule in Washington–never do anything you don’t want to see appear on the front page of The Washington Post the next day. That was his rule. You can amend that now to The New York Times. Okay. I mean, because it is bad–just think, Jim. There were 216 Republicans who voted for Newt Gingrich last Tuesday. If there had been a secret ballot, as several Republicans have admitted privately, that if there had been a secret ballot he wouldn’t have won. Okay. But they had publicly their forum. They got pressure, whatever else. Okay. Loyalty.

PAUL GIGOT: Non-secret ballots.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. Okay. What’s happened since Tuesday? Since Tuesday, you voted for Newt Gingrich. Okay. What happens? You’re sitting there, first story is out there the nine people who supposedly are congratulated on conscience by Dick Armey, the House Majority Leader, are barred from the dinner. They checked their consciences at the door for Haley Barbour because they didn’t want to offend the contributors. Okay. The next day Bill Thomas, the chairman of the House Administration Committee, bright guy from California, does an absolute looney tunes tantrum and fires the special counsel. Jim Cole, the special counsel, is gone the 21st. He’s cut off. Jim, if a member quits, resigns, is drummed out of the House, his staff still gets 90 days to wrap up their business. Now you’ve got Newt Gingrich the third day–

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that?

MARK SHIELDS: –are in trouble back home.

PAUL GIGOT: I think he shouldn’t have done it, although the House did agree in its rules that the Ethics Committee would be wrapped up on the 21st. So–

MARK SHIELDS: –payroll–

PAUL GIGOT: Well, look, it is petty and it was stupid, but the truth is that we got–the main thing is do–we’re going to have a vote on Speaker’s–on this whole decision. That’s going to happen on the 21st, when the whole thing really does end.

JIM LEHRER: Who knows what’s going to happen between now and then.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think, yeah–

JIM LEHRER: We’ll see.

PAUL GIGOT: –I mean– blood mayhem.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Meanwhile–and meanwhile, Paul, over at the Supreme Court there’s a hearing on Monday on whether or not the sexual harassment suit by Paula Jones against the President should be allowed to proceed while President Clinton is still the President of the United States.

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: What’s the potential stakes there.

PAUL GIGOT: Well, I think the stakes are potentially large in the sense that if the court says she can have her day in court while he’s still President, then you’re going to have discovery begin and then you’re going to have witnesses testifying about what actually happened there.

JIM LEHRER: In public?

PAUL GIGOT: In public presumably. Depositions taken, and even if those depositions are private–

JIM LEHRER: This is a civil case. It’s not a criminal case.

PAUL GIGOT: That is correct. It’s a civil case. And so the–and there will be troopers down from Arkansas.

JIM LEHRER: That’s actually up from Arkansas.

PAUL GIGOT: Excuse me. Much damage–

JIM LEHRER: — you don’t even know where you are, right. Okay.

PAUL GIGOT: But it’s–so I don’t think the President of the United States in the second term wants that kind of public embarrassment.

JIM LEHRER: So, Mark, here we sit on a Friday night and in January, where we’ve got the President of the United States, a story coming up next week involving sexual harassment charges against the President of the United States, the most powerful man in the United States, in the government, and then–and we’re also talking about ethics charges against the Speaker of the House, who’s the number three and number three in line to succeed him. What have we got here?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, we’ve got the true faces of the two parties. The face of the Democratic Party is Bill Clinton, the first Democratic President to be elected to a second term in 60 years. The face of the Republican Party is Newt Gingrich, the man of the year. Two of them under a cloud right now. I mean, Gingrich’s cloud probably more immediate, more immediately serious, having admitted but still, the accusations, the allegations are out there against the President, the–every time turn around it seems the Democratic Party’s returning some money that they shouldn’t have taken in the first place.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. That’s a different issue.

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah.

JIM LEHRER: And the Paula Jones case was escalated tremendously, it seemed to me, in the main line press, at least, with Newsweek’s decision to put that on the cover this last Monday. That story is now different, isn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: No question. Evan Thomas, the Bureau Chief Emeritus of Newsweek here in Washington, did a public mea culpa and a journalistic really remarkable act. He confessed, admitted that he had been a snob, and he was not alone in the Washington press corps, because Paula Corbin Jones was not well educated, was not rich, hadn’t gone to good schools, had big hair, wore too much makeup, he dismissed her, and so did a lot of women’s groups, I might add, who ordinarily would rush to the side of a woman who’d been harmed by a powerful political figure, supposedly, who ignored her, and he, he said, you know, I’ve been wrong, treating her as trailer trash and all the rest of it.

JIM LEHRER: He said that on the air–

MARK SHIELDS: He said that. To his credit, he did a mea culpa, and I–I for one commend him. I think what was done to her and her allegations–you know, just the attack upon her personally, was so unfair and so disproportionate and really so indefensible.

JIM LEHRER: So the case, or at least the evidence, against the President on the issue of Paula Jones and sexual harassment is now finally going to get a public hearing. Is that what’s going to come out of this?

PAUL GIGOT: No. This is a legal case.

JIM LEHRER: No? No, no, no. I’m not talking about–I’m not talking about before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court issue on Monday has to do with whether or not the case can proceed.

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: But I mean as a result of Newsweek, we’re talking about it; other people are talking about it. It’s now a “story”, rather than something you don’t talk about.

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right. It is a story. I don’t know though–if the Supreme Court goes the President’s way for constitutional reasons, I don’t know that it’s going to be a long lasting story but it is true that her evidence now and her allegations are getting a public hearing thanks in part to Stuart Taylor.

JIM LEHRER: I was going to say that.

PAUL GIGOT: Who did an exhaustive–

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he did.

PAUL GIGOT: –absolutely exhaustive job of looking at this case from the very beginning.

MARK SHIELDS: In the Legal Times.

PAUL GIGOT: In the American Lawyer.

MARK SHIELDS: American Lawyer.

JIM LEHRER: American Lawyer. He’s a regular on this program on the Supreme Court business.

PAUL GIGOT: And that has caused–since Stuart is not somebody who is deemed to have an ax to grind one way or another, that was–that was really the trigger for a lot of people who had dismissed her as tabloid trash, to quote the President’s lawyer, Bob Bennett, and to say wait a minute, maybe there’s something here.

MARK SHIELDS: It had fallen in–I mean, there’d been an ideological demarcation line in these two. I mean, Anita Hill by the liberals was regarded as Joan of Arc. She was regarded as, you know, the worst figure ever born by the conservatives–

JIM LEHRER: She never alleged anything against–

MARK SHIELDS: –for Clarence Thomas.

JIM LEHRER: –Clarence Thomas in the league with what Paula Jones alleges the President–

MARK SHIELDS: The same thing happened here. Paula Corbin Jones ordinarily would have been the champion–the underdog, supposedly espoused by liberals and feminists–was written off and conservatives embraced her and said, my goodness, this is Joan of Arc revisited.

PAUL GIGOT: Not all of them.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, enough of them.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Well, thank you both very much. Have a good weekend. We’ll see you next week.

PAUL GIGOT: Thanks.