Last week was the week when opponents of House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) finally saw the noose start to tighten. Gingrich allies conceded that he had presented the House Ethics Committee with a "flat-out erroneous statement" about readily verifiable facts. Gingrich was blaming his lawyer. The lawyer declined to take the fall and quit. Then he said he was not quitting, only lowering his profile in the case.
Did Gingrich deliberately lie in his "erroneous statement" to the Ethics Committee? The chief reason to believe he did not is that lying would have been so utterly stupid. On the other hand, theres that joke about the scorpion who asks the turtle to give him a ride across the Euphrates River. "Don't worry about your safety," the scorpion says; "if I sting you, we both drown." So the scorpion climbs on, the turtle starts swimming--and, halfway across, the scorpion stings him. The turtle yells, "Now both of us will drown! Why did you do it?" "Because," the scorpion sighs, "this is the Middle East."
The scorpion story is told to explain why the region produces a self-destructiveness that passeth understanding. The same bizarre surrealism pervades the behavior of major actors in the Gingrich investigation.
You must remember, it has been years since anyone in this neighborhood actually worried about ethics. On the contrary, almost every political act that purports to be about ethics is really about private agendas and public images.
As for the private agendas, people not only have them but are unembarrassed to say so. If you ask political analysts why Gingrich is in trouble, they typically begin, "Well, it all started with Jim Wright . . ." It is as if they were explaining the ancient origins of a Balkan blood feud.
But the imagery is appropriate. When Democrat Jim Wright was speaker of the House, he was so aggressively partisan that House Republicans once took a whole day on the House floor to air complaints about him. Rep. Gingrich, as he later said with pride, started looking into Wright's conduct out of conviction that the entrenched House leader must be thoroughly corrupt. Note that the idea motivating Gingrich was not some prissy moral fibrillation--just a clear, strong sense of political strategy.
After the Gingrich-initiated investigation pushed Wright out of office and Gingrich himself became speaker, Democrats--unremarkably--retaliated by exposing his ethical failings. They were notably open about their motives. They made little pretense of being shocked--SHOCKED!--to find gambling taking place on the premises. They cheerfully told anyone who was interested that what we had here was payback time. Vindictiveness, once hidden as a particularly unattractive vice, was now out in public.
When vices become more open and unashamed, public talk about virtue grows increasingly empty of content. Once again, consider Gingrich's attack on Wright. Addressing one of the major charges against Wright, the House member who had written the applicable rules said the speaker had clearly acted within those rules. Critics dismissed this as mere legalism. Wright must be held to the higher standard, they said, of taking care not to "bring the House into disrepute."
But if the rules were drawn for the precise purpose of defining what constituted "reputable" conduct by House members, and Wright had acted well within those rules, how did he bring the House into disrepute? Did he do so by causing a controversy over his actions? Did that mean that stirring up controversy, for whatever low motives, was enough to brand an official disreputable?
Wright's opponents never dealt with these questions, but they were not alone in their vagueness. At the time, the old offense of "conflict of interest" was giving way in popularity to the charge of "appearance of conflict." The appearance standard, with all its dangers, was replacing substance as the coin of American public ethics.
The major substantive question in Gingrich's case is whether he used nonpartisan, and therefore tax-exempt, foundations to fund partisan activities. The issue, friends of the speaker stress, is complicated. It turns on definitions--the meaning of "partisan," for example--that are too uncertain to justify much moral dudgeon. But Gingrich's critics are furious at the thought that he might escape through what they call these loopholes. They insist he be held to a more rigorous standard--a standard of seemliness befitting his high position. Once again, this higher standard is light on specificity and coy about its basis in law.
That is why the question of lying is shaping up as Gingrich's chief vulnerability and the only issue with the heft to do him in. The political community no longer shares any nonpartisan understanding of what politicians should and shouldn't do. Telling the truth about these doings seems to be the only available life raft; lying, whether the triggering sins are grave or trivial, is the only thing whose turpitude people can agree on.
Since the issue of lying has assumed such totemic stature, how could Gingrich have been so dim as to lie to the Ethics Committee? This question jumps the gun: The facts have not yet been established. In general, though, something akin to the Heisenberg principle in physics is at work in modern ethics investigations. The Heisenberg principle tells us that the act of measuring a natural phenomenon changes that phenomenon. The analogue in the ethics world is that the act of investigating an individual for ethics violations is likely to produce more ethics violations.
People under investigation regularly tell investigators things that are not true. Some untruths are the marks of a guilty conscience; others stem from mental lapses, neuroses. Some defendants lie in a premeditated way, while others blurt out a lie in panic. Some have long since fixed in their minds a story justifying themselves; they tell it believing its truth.
If anyone should know these things, Gingrich should. If he is done in by the issue of lying, no one in Washington will proclaim him a wronged innocent.
Still, if Gingrich falls, his demise will confirm that the politics of appearance now rules Washington. His friends will announce that because Democrats defenestrated the speaker, the coming GOP-run congressional hearings on campaign finances, particularly those on President Bill Clinton's campaign, will be a real nuclear barn-burner. Then they will begin talking about holding Clinton to the highest standards of behavior and appearance--as befits the leader of a great nation.*