TOPICS > Politics

Regional Views on the Gingrich Ethics Punishment

January 21, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Gingrich and Clinton stories have been major concerns here in Washington for the past several weeks. Now, how do they play outside the beltway? For some perspective we turn to our panel of regional commentators: Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe; Lee Cullum of the Dallas Morning News; Patrick McGuigan of the Daily Oklahoman; Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Constitution; and joining them tonight are Robert Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune; and Andrea Neal of the Indianapolis Star. Thanks for being with us. Lee Cullum, you heard what the Congressman said about the process and about how the penalties fit the deed. What do you think? Do you think it did fit the deed?

LEE CULLUM, Dallas Morning News: Elizabeth, I do. It seems to me that the reprimand plus the fine really is appropriate. I happen to be one who thinks it would be better if the Speaker paid the fine out of his own personal funds, perhaps from his book; however, when I think of others who have legal defense funds, President Clinton, for example, among others, it hardly seems fair to deny the Speaker that recourse. But certainly those who contribute need to know what they’re contributing to, which is why contributions already made for campaign purposes would not be appropriate. But it seems to me that the fine and the reprimand themselves were what was called for.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mike Barnicle, what do you think? How does it look in Boston?

MIKE BARNICLE, Boston Globe: Well, in Boston the Speaker is universally loathed, so you have to, you know, factor that into the equation, but I think a lot of people wonder how can you lead the House if you’re admittedly not smart enough to hire a good tax lawyer to handle a tax question, which is what Gingrich did. And the other thing I think people wonder about is if you’re a schoolteacher or a nurse or a truck driver or a newspaper columnist or anything and you establish a pattern of deception on your job that the Speaker is alleged to have established over a period of years, ordinary people lose their jobs. This fellow didn’t lose his job, so it just feeds into the feeling I think that many people have that there are two sets of rules in this country, one for the powerful and the other for the rest of us.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat McGuigan, what do you think, listening to the Congressman describe the process, the fact that it was thorough and fair in their view and the penalty?

PATRICK McGUIGAN, Daily Oklahoman: I was kind of intrigued by the discussion among the two congressmen and some of the things that you showed in the news segment because it showed a lot higher level of comity and civility, some words that we’re hearing a lot these days, than I really had suspected gone on. And I suppose that’s kind of encouraging. I do think that it’s important to remember that, you know, although things like the Ten Commandments are pretty clear, the Ethics in Government Act and for that matter tax law, as it applies to 501C-3 organizations is a bit of a moving target. And I think it would be unfair to treat the Speaker more harshly, more–

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Excuse me. Let’s remind people that 501C-3 are the tax-exempt organizations.

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Yes. For example, institutions of higher education are generally classified as 501C-3 organizations, and it would be interesting to do a content analysis of political science course at some of our universities to see if they could pass this test that’s been applied by Mr. Cole. But, again, I hasten to add that Mr. Cole, himself, was very restrained in the things he had to say. He said he could not make the case that Gingrich had deliberately misled the committee and because he couldn’t make that case, he did not go to certain levels of possible sanctions, censure. He stuck to reprimand. To some extent this stuff is a moving target, and it’s being defined in front of our eyes, and to call a $300,000 fine imposed on the Speaker of the House meaningless is a little bit surprising to me. And this raises the bar, by the way, for things like the investigation of President Clinton. If the allegations against his administration wind up being proven, you know, what kind of sanction will we see there, impeachment, or stiff fines of some kind? I’ll be interested in seeing these standards applied in those kinds of situations as we all go forward.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia, does the penalty fit the deed? How does it look to you?

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Constitution: I think the penalties were appropriate. I think that the $300,000 fine makes it very clear that these were very serious charges. Earlier, in the spin phase that was referred to by Congressman Goss, there were a lot of supporters of Congressman Gingrich comparing this to driving violations or pedestrian violations, jaywalking, parking ticket. Well, nobody gets a $300,000 parking ticket. So I think this reinforces the serious nature of the charges. But let me disagree with a couple of things Patrick McGuigan said. This is not a moving target. The laws that Newt Gingrich violated are extraordinarily clear. The Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation was set up to aid inner city youth. That’s what it was set up for, and the Speaker knew that. He used funds then that were laundered through that organization for–to help televise a course to show Republican activists how to run for office. It was clear as a bell that that was wrong. And most ordinary citizens understand that that is deceit. Let me also say that what special investigator Cole said was that a case could be made that the Speaker had deliberately deceived the House. There was not perhaps clear and convincing evidence, but the Ethics Committee, ethics subcommittee, ended up not coming to that conclusion, in essence, because of a plea bargain. When they got the Speaker to agree that he had provided inaccurate information to the House, then they agreed that they would leave it at that and not come to the conclusion that this was deliberate.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Andrea Neal, listening to the Congressman, were you struck, as Pat McGuigan was, by the comity, and did you feel the process went well, and does the penalty fit the crime or the deed, let’s say?

ANDREA NEAL, Indianapolis Star: The process today seemed smooth enough, but I think both the fine and the reprimand were a political solution to a political problem, and they far exceeded the seriousness of the offense. In my mind an apology from the Speaker would have been sufficiently, but clearly, Mr. Gingrich felt that to end the paralysis in Congress he needed to admit to a violation and move on. But non-profit organizations around this country do the same thing he did every day. And that is spend tax-deductible donations to support political causes. And Congress hasn’t done anything to amend the tax laws which tells me that they’re much more interested in going after the Speaker than they are in changing the tax laws that they seem to disagree with.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Bob Kittle, where do you come down on this?

ROBERT KITTLE, San Diego Union Tribune: Well, I think the penalty is certainly a stiff one. But I think when the Speaker acknowledged that he had made mistakes and the House decides that this is the proper penalty, with a $300,000 fine, in effect, then the Speaker should pay it and move on. And I think the interesting thing for all of us is we question, you know, the details of this. But I don’t think the American people are looking at the fine print of the Ethics Committee’s findings about the Speaker. I think we see for the most part most people recognize that there’s another ethical scandal going on in Washington. The President was inaugurated for a second time yesterday with an ethical cloud over his head regarding the contributions from foreign contributors, and the Paula Jones matter. Now, the Speaker of the House, in effect, the leader of the Republican Party, the man third in line for the presidency, has acknowledged ethical lapses, and I think the American people are really eager for Washington to get its House in order, to put the Gingrich matter behind it, as I think the House very effectively did today in the sense of coming to a good resolution of this, indeed, setting a very high standard of ethical conduct for the Speaker and for all the members of the House, and I think now it’s time to move forward, and I think the American people are most interested in whether the Speaker is going to be able to put together a cohesive body in the House. By its nature the House is always a fractious group, 435 members elected more or less independently. They don’t owe much to any of the parties in terms of their loyalty, and so the real question now that I think most Americans are concerned about is, will the House be an effective body? Can the Speaker move forward and get the House to bend toward an agenda that gets something accomplished as the President indicated in his inaugural speech yesterday, that he’d like to move forward on a centrist agenda? And I think that’s really what, what we’re now waiting to see, and it’s what the American people are hoping for.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Mike Barnicle, Bob just mentioned these two big events of the 24 hours, the inauguration and this historic reprimand of the Speaker. And he described what it looks like to him in San Diego and what government looks like to him and what needs to happen. What does it look like to you, these two events in 24 hours? How did government look?

MIKE BARNICLE: You know, I think, Elizabeth, unfortunately, that many people are too busy making peanut butter sandwiches for their kids to go off to school at a quarter of 7 in the morning to wonder whether the House is going to have a quorum today or there’s going to be a level of bipartisan spirit today, things like that. I think when it comes to looking at government, I think this country has sadly had such–has had such a diminished sense of outrage and a diminished sense of hope over the last 15 years that we are now so easily satisfied and we just want our politicians basically not to get us into a war, don’t cause us to fall into a recession, shut out the lights at the end of the day, don’t cause any trouble, don’t scare the horses, leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone until two years down the road when we vote for you, or four years down the road, depending on your term of office. And what happens out of that I think is that we’ve bred a series of politicians over the course of the last decade who are so inherently reliant on consultants and focus groups and polls that what we get from State of the Union speeches, from second inaugural addresses, from the actions of the House of Representatives today, we get a decidedly political opinion based on something they read in the poll, or something they heard in the focus group, rather than someone’s conscience or someone’s gut instinct, rather than the truth.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Pat McGuigan, do you think the expectations have gone that low?

PATRICK McGUIGAN: Well, I’m afraid that in terms of popular perception I think Mike probably has a point. And, you know, maybe part of the role that we can play is to explain the intricacies of some of these laws on the one hand. And I stand by everything I said previously about the intricacies of these laws and as Ms. Neal pointed out, you know, you have 501C-3 education groups; you have lobbying organizations; and then you have Political Action Committees. Well, increasingly, the lines between those entities have become blurred, right, left, center, regardless of where they’re coming from politically. That’s a fact. That is a fact of how this law operates in terms of the Ethics in Government Act, especially when you have a politician involved in this kind of activity. Beyond all that, I think we can help people understand. You’re hearing a lot about civility and comity. And, you know, you have bickering. Well, nobody really likes bickering. But on the other hand, there’s arguments, there’s disagreements about substantive policy issues, and how we resolve those issues. Arguments are central to our politics, and they have to continue. Disagreements have to continue, but bickering, that’s a different issue.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’re not so discouraged, it sounds like.

PATRICK McGUIGAN: No. I’m not discouraged. I do believe that there’s a lot of cynicism in the country, and sometimes we in the press help to feed that excessively. I think Mike has some good points, but I also think it’s something that if we all care enough to explain these laws and put situations in context, then you can say, you know, a $300,000 fine of the Speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States is not meaningless. You know, maybe some new definition has emerged here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, looking at these 24 hours, the inauguration and the penalties today, how does it look to you?

LEE CULLUM: Well, Elizabeth, of course, I thought the inauguration was very impressive, as inaugurations always are. I do want to second a bit of what Mike Barnicle is saying, though. I hear more and more people say that they feel that it’s not going to get any better. They fear that the people they want to see in government are simply not going to be drawn to government. And I heard a man say in California over the weekend, an avowed Republican, that the politicians had better watch out, or they’re going to turn American politics into professional sports. It’s going to go the way of professional sports, which, of course, are attracting widespread disgust. I want to agree with Pat McGuigan how–I am optimistic. I remember the turn of the last century, which produced Theodore Roosevelt and finally Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt. I think that can happen again once over the hurdle into the new century of the new millennium. I certainly hope so.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Lee Cullum, we have just a little time left. These 24 hours, how do they look from Atlanta?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Cynthia. I’m sorry. Cynthia.

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, remember that yesterday was also the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and so many people in Atlanta were as preoccupied with celebrating his birthday as with keeping an eye on the inaugural events. And of course, the President referred to Dr. King in some of his remarks. I think that it is good to keep in mind, as depressed as we may sometimes become over the state of national affairs, politics, our politicians, that, in fact, the inaugural does represent something which is wonderful about the foundation of America, and that is peaceful transition. But it is also true that the American people are increasingly skeptical and cynical, I think, about their politicians. I also think that the process of ethics investigations has also been unfortunately debased by both Democrats and Republicans, who’ve used it to partisan advantage. I don’t think we got that impression during Watergate. I think we got the impression that Senators who are Democrats and Senators who are Republicans were genuinely concerned about the country. And now you think it’s just partisan politics.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Thanks, Cynthia, and thanks to all the rest of you.