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Shields and Gigot Political Wrap

April 18, 1997 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now our regular political analysis by Shields & Gigot, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, “Wall Street Journal” columnist Paul Gigot. Mark, what is your reaction to the $300,000 Bob Dole loan to Newt Gingrich?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I was struck by the recurring theme of the Republicans before they won. There was an entrenched, arrogant group in Washington, Democratically controlled Congress–makes rules for themselves, take care of themselves, rub each others backs, and all the rest of it. First act upon taking over, these populist outsiders were to say, we’re going to put ourselves under the same rules as everybody else; it’s not going to be that old business as usual anymore.

And in the crunch moment, Newt Gingrich did what nobody else could do, what no small business woman could do, what no high school people could do, what no registered nurse could do, no collateral, no interest, no payment, no credit check. For most people that means no loan. He gets $300,000, and he gets an arrangement, the very thing they’ve accused Bill Clinton of–the budget–legitimately–of having–not coming up till 2003. That’s what Newt Gingrich got in a sweetheart deal yesterday.

JIM LEHRER: A sweetheart deal yesterday, Paul?

PAUL GIGOT: Well, come on, Mark. He could have called in the Lippo Group to help–the administration got people to help Web Hubbell–or he could have set up a legal defense fund like the President did; he didn’t do that. He’s going to pay it out of personal funds. There’s no question that the balloon payment aspect of this is–

JIM LEHRER: Now, why don’t you explain what balloon payment means. He doesn’t have to pay anything until the year 2005.

PAUL GIGOT: That’s right. That interest accrues in the meantime at 10 percent a year and the balloon payment aspect of it is a nice thing to be able to do for somebody in Gingrich’s position, which is he doesn’t have the ability, apparently, to write a $300,000 check. And certainly his wife didn’t want him to do that, so in a way this is a compromise between Marianne Gingrich, who didn’t want to pay it out of personal funds at all, and the political demands of the situation which really made it essential that he do that. He’s just going to pay it later. It’s–it gives the Democrats an opportunity to shout some more, but I think that his Republican colleagues seem to be rallying to him, and I think it’s going to get him past this position.

JIM LEHRER: Paul, last night we had Congressman Boehner and Congressman Cardin on. I asked Congressman Boehner–he’s head of the Republican Conference–whether or not Newt Gingrich was a fellow leader in the Republican Party–said you have to do it personally, you can’t do it any other way. What’s your reading of that?

PAUL GIGOT: My reading is that certainly Mr. Boehner had urged him to do it out of personal funds, and I think that by and large the feeling among the leadership was that he should because it would be taking more personal responsibility and preventing another political uproar. Now there were a few members–Gerald Solomon was one of them–head of the Rules Commission–who said don’t pay it out of political funds because we don’t like the precedent this sets for any other member of Congress who can be punished.

JIM LEHRER: You mean personal funds?

PAUL GIGOT: Out of personal funds.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

PAUL GIGOT: Don’t. And he was very strong on this. He said don’t pay it out of personal funds because it’ll set a bad precedent for any other member who’s sanctioned by the Ethics Committee, and it’ll make it possible for an Ethics Committee to impoverish a member. But in the end, I think the other side won.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Mark, the goal of all of this, of course, was to put this ethics nightmare, end quote, of Newt Gingrich’s behind him. Is this going to do it?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think it is, Jim. I mean, I–I heard Congressman Cardin. I spoke with him today, and it’s interesting, they get very upset with the Speaker. Democrats do, and others have covered this, because the Speaker–he just kind of likes to cast things in a little bit different light. I mean, this was a penalty–the penalty that the Speaker himself agreed to pay, it was the payment–understand that this was the payment between a censure, a censure which would have deprived him of the speakership, and a reprimand. And to make it more serious than a reprimand, that’s with a penalty, which the speaker did accept at the time.

When you get a conservative columnist like Bob Novak saying that if Bob Dole is going into the banking business, I want a loan just like that one, and you get Henry Hyde, the respected Republican chairman, to say–to say the purpose of the penalty was for the Speaker to feel some pain for what he had done, and the only way you feel any pain is to pay out of his pocket, and he’s not doing that. I mean, he really isn’t. I mean, he was persuaded apparently by Jack Kemp, who’s done pretty well on the speaking circuit, and some others, that once you leave–the Speaker is going to leave in the year 2002–and that’s when the speakership is up, nobody thinks he’s going to stay in the House after he’s Speaker–then he can go out and make–raise the money that way.

JIM LEHRER: Paul, what is your reading of what Bob Dole did today, of why Bob Dole did this?

PAUL GIGOT: I think Bob Dole–I have no reason to take Bob Dole at other than his word on this–Bob Dole has a view of politics which has always been, it’s our team versus their team. And I’m a Republican and Newt Gingrich is part of my team. I’m Mr. Republican. And I want to help my team. And I think he thought it was making a very generous gesture that says I’m the leader of the party, and I see this fellow, Speaker Gingrich, the leader in a tough spot, and I can do him a favor. And as such, the leader of the party, he said, well, I might as well do it. I don’t think he gets a heck of a lot out of it, other than the goodwill of certainly the Speaker and a lot of other Republicans.

One other thing, it might have been a little bit of payback to the Speaker. I mean, you didn’t have to go very far last year. You didn’t have to stand–to find a lot of Republicans who were willing to criticize the way Bob Dole was running his campaign. But Newt Gingrich wasn’t one of them, certainly not on the record. Newt Gingrich was not telling anybody that this was Bob Dole’s fault. And maybe Bob Dole felt he ought to pay him back a little for that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the Dole–

MARK SHIELDS: I think there’s a couple of reasons. I think Bob Dole is a loyal Republican. I think Bob Dole likes to be a player, and is a former presidential candidate who’s lost, there’s a certain emptiness, and I think this is a way of keeping him as an active player in the party at the same time. I find the friendship thing that the Speaker spoke of–a good friend–that’s of course a statement by the Speaker in hopes of appeasing the House rules on ethics, that you can accept a gift of this proportion–because this really is not a loan. This is not a straight commercial loan. It’s not available to ordinary people, so it does constitute a gift. Any gift over $250 can only come from a friend under certain conditions, and so he kept emphasizing what a great friend he was. If you recall, Bob Dole didn’t appear on the same platform with Newt Gingrich for six months, his good friend, because he was toxic during the political campaign–

JIM LEHRER: Gingrich was.

MARK SHIELDS: Gingrich was during the campaign. I think that another factor here, Jim, Bob Dole since these last two–talked a couple of times–he’s up at Harvard this week–and spoke about the presidential prospects of another Dole, of Elizabeth Dole. Now this is certainly a way of reaching out to conservatives who have been Newt Gingrich’s staunchest supporters, than of saying to them, hey, the Doles aren’t bad people, in Newt Gingrich’s moment of greatest need, who stepped forward to bail him out, Bob Dole did.

JIM LEHRER: Paul, the other big story this week was the Reno decision, Janet Reno decision not to ask for another independent counsel in the Democratic fund-raising matter. Who’s winning the PR battle on this, she or the Republicans?

PAUL GIGOT: She was in an awful tough spot, Jim. She had to choose between her own reputation for independence, and the–and the President who had appointed her, and she’s taking some big hits this week not just from Republicans but in the Democratic leaning newspapers as well.

JIM LEHRER: The New York Times was really tough on her.

PAUL GIGOT: I think the Post was also pretty skeptical. I don’t know, it may be that she did the right thing here for the wrong reason, Jim. I mean, her reasoning was that the threshold kicking in the independent counsel wasn’t reached. I wasn’t real persuaded by her letter. It seems to me that if there’s ever a case where a conflict of interest–that is an attorney general investigating a White House–this is probably it, but now the decision has been made, this may be better for the country. I mean that in this sense. When an independent counsel is named, what tends to happen is everybody else takes a kind of accountability holiday.

The Congress says, well, we don’t need to work so hard to investigate, the press says we don’t need to cover it as much because that’s going to be investigated, and the White House and the administration is off the hook because somebody else is investigating it. There’s an old philosopher king that we’re bringing here to settle all this. Maybe all the rest of us will have to take responsibility, and the White House in particular, Janet Reno has put herself in a position where her department really has to prove between now and the election of 1998 that it is willing to investigate this and the people prove that justice and this administration is independent.

JIM LEHRER: And Mark, back to Newt Gingrich, he compared Janet Reno in this decision to John Mitchell in the Watergate coverup.

MARK SHIELDS: Outrageous and indefensible. Janet Reno, she’s her own person, no one legitimately or plausibly accused of being a White House puppet. I mean, the White House moans and groans about her and her independence. She’s got excellent credentials, Jim, and when she goes up to the Hill, nobody can punch her. I mean, Sen. Hatch on the Judiciary Committee, she’s up–make strong statements in her absence–but I don’t think anybody questions her independence, and the fact that she’s not a–she’s not looking for any kind of a promotion.

Her own illness precludes it. This is the ultimate job she’s going to have, and she’s never been at the beck and call. What Newt Gingrich said was that he compared her to John Mitchell, a felon, a resigned and disgraced attorney general, who went away to the slammer. I mean, this is the reason why former professors probably shouldn’t be in politics. They invariably say something recklessly provocative when they see somebody falling asleep at the back of the room, and that’s what Newt did.

JIM LEHRER: We have to go. Mark, Paul, thank you both very much.