Given all the attention to the ethics matter, it's worth asking what actually happened back in 1995, 1996, and 1997. The Gingrich case was extraordinarily complex, intensely partisan, and driven in no small way by a personal vendetta on the part of one of Gingrich's former political opponents. It received saturation coverage in the press; a database search of major media outlets revealed more than 10,000 references to Gingrich's ethics problems during the six months leading to his reprimand. It ended with a special counsel hired by the House Ethics Committee holding Gingrich to an astonishingly strict standard of behavior, after which Gingrich in essence pled guilty to two minor offenses. Afterwards, the case was referred to the Internal Revenue Service, which conducted an exhaustive investigation into the matter. And then, after it was all over and Gingrich was out of office, the IRS concluded that Gingrich did nothing wrong. After all the struggle, Gingrich was exonerated.York's piece should be read in full, but a few things are worth calling out. First, the role of Gingrich's chief accuser, Ben "Cooter" Jones, the onetime "Dukes of Hazzard" actor who found his way to Congress but lost his seat due to redistricting. Jones had an axe to grind and he wasn't particularly subtle about it, as York reminds us:
There's no doubt the complaint was rooted in the intense personal animus Jones felt toward Gingrich. In 1995, I sat down with Jones for a talk about Gingrich, and without provocation, Jones simply went off on the Speaker. "He's just full of s--t," Jones told me. "He is. I mean, the guy's never done a damn thing, he's never worked a day in his life, he's never hit a lick at a snake. He's just a bulls--t artist. I mean, think about it. What has this guy ever done in his life?…Gingrich has never worked. He's never had any life experience. He's very gifted in his way at a sort of rhetorical terrorism, and he's gifted in his way at being a career politician, someone who understands how that system works and how to get ahead in it, which is everything that he has derided for all these years. So I think he's a hypocrite, and I think he's a wuss, and I don't mind saying that to him or whoever. To his mother -- I don't care."And if what York asserts is true, why then has the impression of Gingrich being a world-class scoundrel hardened, at least on this issue? Let him explain how the game works:
At that point, Jones leaned over to speak directly into my recorder. Raising his voice, he declared: "HE'S THE BIGGEST A--HOLE IN AMERICA!"
Back in January 1997, the day after Cole presented his damning report to the Ethics Committee, the Washington Post's front-page banner headline was "Gingrich Actions 'Intentional' or 'Reckless'; Counsel Concludes That Speaker's Course Funding Was 'Clear Violation' of Tax Laws." That same day, the New York Times ran eleven stories on the Gingrich matter, four of them on the front page (one inside story was headlined, "Report Describes How Gingrich Used Taxpayers' Money for Partisan Politics"). On television, Dan Rather began the CBS Evening News by telling viewers that "only now is the evidence of Newt Gingrich's ethics violations and tax problems being disclosed in detail."All the news that's fit to print, of course.
The story was much different when Gingrich was exonerated. The Washington Post ran a brief story on page five. The Times ran an equally brief story on page 23. And the evening newscasts of CBS, NBC, and ABC -- which together had devoted hours of coverage to the question of Gingrich's ethics -- did not report the story at all. Not a word.
There are plenty of things to dislike about Newt Gingrich, including his philandering, his egomania and his tendency to misunderstand that bloviation isn't an adequate substitute for principle. At this point he'd not be my choice to lead this nation. Still, in a time when dishonesty is firmly in the saddle, York's article is a useful reminder of why dishonesty works so well. I'll say it again -- no matter what you think of Gingrich otherwise, you really need to read the whole thing.