TOPICS > Politics

Ethics: A History Lesson

January 8, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight some historical perspective on political scandals, most particularly as they relate to the case of Speaker Newt Gingrich. He’s not the first congressman or speaker to have Ethics Committee and similar problems as we hear now from three NewsHour regulars: Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist/Author Haynes Johnson joined tonight by Suzanne Garment, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, author of the book Scandal, the Culture of Mistrust in American Politics. Suzanne Garment, where does the Gingrich matter rate right now on the scale of scandals?

SUZANNE GARMENT, American Enterprise Institute: As a scandal, it’s pretty terrific. Anything that threatens the tenure of the Speaker of the House has to be rated as a major scandal. That’s not to say that the offense involved is a major one. In fact, compared to other recent congressional scandals, it’s pretty small potatoes.

JIM LEHRER: Do speakers through history, I mean, have they always been lightning rods like this, like Gingrich?

SUZANNE GARMENT: I’m going to have to defer to one of my colleagues. I don’t remember another who was attacked in this way for ethics violations. Certainly, there have been–

JIM LEHRER: What about the–the one that’s cited, of course, is Speaker Wright, Jim Wright.


JIM LEHRER: Until. Okay. I interrupted you.

SUZANNE GARMENT: That’s all right. Until Newt Gingrich brought us the spectacle of Speaker Wright being hauled up before the Ethics Committee on violations that were a little bit obscure. Wright, of course, chose to resign from Congress altogether. Gingrich has given us another ending for now.

JIM LEHRER: And Haynes, all scandals–I hate to use that word “scandal,” but I don’t know–you–the title of your book–


HAYNES JOHNSON, Journalist/Author: It’s a broad term.

JIM LEHRER: It’s a broad term. It’s a broad term, but these things all have different kinds of lives, and I recall reading the Washington Post over the weekend and particularly on Monday this had the smell of he’s going, in other words, Gingrich is going. But he didn’t go. He stayed, he fought, as have, it seems to me, many recent, more recently people are beginning to do that more than they used to, am I right about that?

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yes. And the news media, of course, feeds on these things, and all of a sudden it’s all over the press. And sometimes they go and often they don’t. And what you hope is they don’t look back and see what you wrote or commented on at the time because they may survive and it may not be such a great scandal. The standard of scandal, as you were saying, has changed. The bar is different. I mean, it used to be easy, Jim, when you came to Washington as a young reporter here, you could say, well, it was personal behavior, drunkenness, you had to fall into the tidal basin almost or jump into Fannie Fox with the Argentine firecracker stripper with Wilbur Mills. That was a scandal of personal conduct. Then it was the old-fashioned corruption of cash. And now it’s a different kind of thing. It’s ethics that didn’t used to be even part of the bar. I think Suzy would agree.

SUZANNE GARMENT: In fact, it’s still very hard for us to explain exactly what the problem is.


JIM LEHRER: Put this in some historical perspective, Doris.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, there’s been three different kinds of punishments meted out against congressmen and senators. The lightest one, actually, is the reprimand, which is what we’re hearing they think will be recommended for–for Congressman Gingrich. And it seems that the reprimand has gone for financial misconduct, when somebody had a conflict of interest, or somebody didn’t really report their campaign contributions in the right way. Barney Frank was also reprimanded. Now, his was different. His was bringing discredit on the House. And the interesting thing about his case is that the Ethics Committee voted for reprimand almost unanimously. It was Gingrich who said reprimand is not strong enough, I want him censured, which is the next level up. The reason censure is harder is that the person who censured–

JIM LEHRER: Refresh our memory on the Barney Frank case.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: What Barney Frank had done presumably was to have a young man who was his live-in lover who was actually running a prostitute ring from his apartment, unknown to Barney Frank, but Barney had evidently sent a memo in about the incident–the whole issue when it came up which wasn’t completely truthful. He admitted that it wasn’t truthful. They claimed he brought discredit on the House by so doing, but everybody was happy with a reprimand, except Gingrich.

So Gingrich gets up and says we’ve got to have censure. And what censure means is that the person who was censured actually has to stand in the well of the House, facing the House, and get it in public. So it’s much more of a humiliation. It’s like treating him as a felon. They did not vote the censure, but, in fact, what happened is that Gingrich’s anger at Barney Frank still remains as a poison in the House. Now, another kind of case where censure was brought had to do with sex. Sex seems to be the 20th century version of the 19th century physical assaults. In the old days, in the 19th century, people were censured and reprimanded for actually fighting with one another, pistols and fist fights. But in the 20th century–

JIM LEHRER: Members of the Congress of the United States.

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: It was in the Congress. When two guys had a fist fight, they were both censured. Interestingly, another two guys had a dual, two congressmen. One of them was killed by the other guy, but the other guy somehow made it through a censure vote and stayed in. So there have been worse things than Gingrich has done, but the interesting thing in the case of Studds and Krane, two congressmen, Studds presumably had sex with a page ten years prior, a male page. Krane had sex with a female page. They were both like 17 years old, the pages. And in that case they recommended for censure but Gingrich came up and said censure’s not enough; I want them expelled because the integrity of the House is in question. In that case they were censured; his vote for expulsion was not met. But I think his difficulty is he was the architect of Wright. They say that after Wright gave his very moving speech saying I hope we don’t resort to cannibalism, Gingrich was seen whistling in the corridor. So I think part of the problem is there are memories in this institution, and Gingrich seems to have played too big a role in other people’s troubles.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Suzanne, that that has an element–playing an element in this?

SUZANNE GARMENT: It’s part of it, certainly, but the escalation has been going on for so long that I don’t think it’s just a matter of Gingrich and Wright or Gingrich and Frank. The reason that Wright was such an appealing target for Republicans was that Democrats in Congress at that time were making great hay out of raising all kinds of scandal issues about the Republicans in the Executive Branch, so the two sides have been feeding off one another for some years.

JIM LEHRER: Let me call the standards issue that Haynes raised and how it’s changed, what’s your reading on that?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: The standard has changed and very much for the better. I think this is one of the happy stories about what’s happened in American history. You look at this kind of punishment being considered for various members of the House and the Senate over 200 years. The interesting thing, you look at the 19th century and much of the 20th century, you don’t see many people punished for financial malfeasance. And we know that this was a period–

JIM LEHRER: You had to kill somebody, in other words?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: You had to kill someone, and that guy was not even expelled. He was able to pass the test of his colleagues. This was 1838, William Graves, a Whig from Kentucky, and so that shows the fact that members of the House were very reluctant to punish their colleagues, especially in this case of money. We know now that there have been members of the Senate, earlier in American history who were essentially owned by railroads, took briefcases full of cash. Their colleagues knew that they cast votes that were essentially paid for. That is something that in the 1990’s is really very much a thing of the past. These people are so much under scrutiny by their colleagues, by their enemies in some cases, by the press, that that’s the kind of thing that we don’t have under current standards of disclosure. So even among those people who may feel that the infraction we’re talking about with Newt Gingrich is rather minor, that’s a sign of the fact that we’re a lot more ethically sensitive than we had been for most of our history.

JIM LEHRER: And so we’re getting cleaner.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: I think we are getting cleaner.

JIM LEHRER: Or the infractions are getting smaller–


HAYNES JOHNSON: Well, I think Michael is right about that though. Even in the last generation it used to be the scandal was cash. You got paid off, bag men. When Mark Twain in the 20th century wrote that wonderful book about the gilded age and the corruption of it, and he watched Congress being given–Credit Mobia case–the founding of the railroads West. And the congressmen and senators were all on the take. They got the stock, and they gave them the land grants–

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Including a Speaker of the House–

HAYNES JOHNSON: Exactly. And he–

JIM LEHRER: What happened to–sorry, go ahead.

HAYNES JOHNSON: Yeah. But I mean Twain’s famous remark was there was no distinctly American criminal class except Congress. And that was because of the kinds of money behavior that he saw there.

JIM LEHRER: So what happened to Blane, for instance–

HAYNES JOHNSON: Blane 1876, a Republican was accused of financial corruption. He had been speaker. He was able to beat the rap, although there was an awful lot of evidence against him, so much so that he was able to be nominated for President in 1884. He did lose to Grover Cleveland.


DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: You know, Jim, the interesting relationship to cash is that Senator Talmadge was going along fine. He never had a single check that he had to use for cash.

JIM LEHRER: Democrat from Georgia, Democrat from Georgia, right?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: He had never cashed a single check to cash because he got so much cash from his constituents continually over a long period of time, and it finally came out when his wife was divorcing him. And in the divorce proceedings she mentioned that he got bundles of cash for years from his constituents. He was finally censured for that. So cash still remains a problem.

SUZANNE GARMENT: And yet, as we congratulate ourselves–

JIM LEHRER: On being so clean and wonderful.

SUZANNE GARMENT: That’s right. The fact that we’re cleaner does not mean that we’re more virtuous. And today Americans mistrust their congress people at least as much as they ever did.

JIM LEHRER: Now why? Explain why.

SUZANNE GARMENT: So the question is how can we be cleaner and feeling dirtier all the time? One is that the standards do keep on changing. No. 2 is that we know much more than we used to. No. 3 is that some things have gotten worse. For instance, campaign finance reform meant that you had to go out now and raise money from more people than you used to have to because of the contribution limits. This meant that congressmen spent more of their time and, indeed, spend more of their time fund-raising than they used to. They’re cleaner. There’s very little doubt of that. But the fund-raising process is much more on display than it ever was.

JIM LEHRER: And a dirty process is what you’re saying.

SUZANNE GARMENT: Some people think of it as inherently dirty.


MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: And also I think more consistent standards. You know, one of the reasons we have a House Ethics Committee is 1967 Adam Clayton Powell, the civil rights leader, Harlem congressman, was accused of having people on his payroll who were friends and relatives. He was prevented from sitting in the House. It was something that the Supreme Court later overruled, but there was a great uproar because that was a standard if you applied it to members of the House and Senate there would have been an awful lot of members of Congress getting expelled, so a House Ethics Committee was established to try to apply some more consistency over the years.

JIM LEHRER: There was no committee at that time. They just did it. That was just by the–by the vote of the House.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: For most of American history these things were handled by the Rules Committee of the House and Senate, and the idea was that if you had people who deal with these questions full-time, there’s a little bit of a greater chance of fairness.

HAYNES JOHNSON: When you asked her a minute ago why it’s happened, one reason is television and the press. And going back to the Watergate period and the last generation, we’re highly more heightened about the prospect of “scandal,” or abuse of power, or all these things, but it’s more complicated because it isn’t just, as we say, payoffs. It’s how much money you have to raise. It’s the revolving door. It’s being able to be influenced working in an office and then cashing in and so the rules of lobbying keep getting changed, but it costs more and more to run for office. So you’re in this situation.

JIM LEHRER: And is there an expectation now, Doris, that people are going to do the wrong thing, that once these start that, oh, well, there’s going to be another shoe to drop, and there’s going to be another shoe to drop, and there’s going to be more heat, and there’s going to be another story and boom, they’re going to be gone, that’s the story of scandal these days, right?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, that’s what we’ve experienced in so many other facets of our life. What I find discouraging is that after Speaker Wright’s problems, for example, and after the ABSCAM situations in the 1980’s, where they actually found a congressman who on tape accepted a $50,000 bribe, and he was expelled, and Sen. Williams would have been expelled but he resigned, it seemed then that everybody was saying we’ve got to clean up campaign financing. That’s why we’re in this mess. Definitely, it will be done.

The role of money in politics will be reduced. Well, now we have a situation where the combination of Gingrich’s problems and the Democrats’ problems with campaign finance and all that fund-raising during the election, everybody’s saying it will be done, something will be done. I don’t see any evidence that anything is being done. So that’s where you have a feeling we’re on a treadmill. No wonder the people are upset. They have a right to be.

JIM LEHRER: Well, now the other night or last night, to be exact, Suzanne Garment, Mike Barnicle of the Boston Globe, said on this program that the people aren’t upset about this Newt Gingrich case at all, they don’t even care about it. It’s totally irrelevant to their lives, and things like this, they see Gingrich and the Democrats almost the same way, and it’s an irrelevancy in their lives.

SUZANNE GARMENT: Well, it’s interesting that the polls showed a majority of people wanting Gingrich to be replaced as Speaker. Also, the same polls showed 75 percent of people saying that they thought what he had done was just like what all politicians do. So there is a heavy discounting going on.

HAYNES JOHNSON: But that’s the most dangerous part because when you believe the worst about everybody, then you think it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t affect my life, and I get out of it, I don’t vote, and, therefore, the problem gets worse in the long run. As Doris was saying about campaign money, it’s worse today than it was 20 years ago, and after every cycle of elections, we say we’re going to do something about it. We’ll see.

JIM LEHRER: And yet the infractions are smaller, Michael.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: They are, but I think it does depress confidence in government. Look at what happened among the American people after Watergate. We’ve never really recovered from what we learned about what Richard Nixon had done. Now here we are in a situation where you have the Speaker of the House, chief elected officer of the House, and also the President of the United States, to some extent, under clouds. I think this could have the same effect.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you all four very much.