SALON Daily Clicks: Newsreal

Newt Gingrich's "loan" from Bob Dole to pay his ethics fine is an escape stunt that would make Houdini gasp.

Published April 18, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

WASHINGTON -- one can see the "Saturday Night Live" bit: Bob Dole comes on the screen and growls, "Hey, are you a politician with a bad ethics record? A bad credit record? No problem, my friend. Come on down to the First National Dole. Bob Dole's terms are easy. And you can pay Bob Dole back whenever you like. Call 1-800-BOBDOLE ..."

Although Newt Gingrich's plan to use a loan from Bob Dole to pay his whopping and historic $300,000 ethics fine is easy to mock, there are a few streaks of ingenuity in the scheme. The speaker -- whose negative ratings aren't far above those of Zaire's Mobutu Sese Seko -- can at least appear as if he is taking personal responsibility for paying the fine, rather than simply dipping into campaign funds. It is a compromise his wife, Marianne -- who expressed quite understandable fears for her personal financial assets -- can swallow. The deal is also reassuring to legislators who were not eager to see a precedent established whereby they would have to pay for ethical violations directly out of their own pockets. The Gingrich-Dole gambit shows that opportunities do exist for the creative financing of ethics fines.

And Gingrich may well have completed his political rehabilitation with the help of Banker Bob. The speaker has been on a roll lately -- or so the pundit class has proclaimed. With his trip to China and his return to outlandish rhetoric (such as stating that the White House fund-raising scandal is more serious than the decline of Rome), Gingrich has garnered his first decent press in months, while silencing the howls of far-right Republican crusaders who had been calling for his hide. Still, the question of the fine has hovered ominously. With Marianne adamant about not using family funds for this payment -- most of the couple's assets are in her name -- there indeed was potential for another PR disaster. The Dole loan saved Gingrich from that.

It also saves Gingrich from paying anything -- for a long while. The Dole loan is for eight years, with no payments due until the end of that period. In other words, Gingrich need not write a check to Dole until 2005. He has already pledged that he will leave the speakership -- and presumably the House-- by 2002. Assuming he departs the House without any further disgrace (remember, the IRS is still investigating GOPAC, the political action committee Gingrich once headed), he can cash in: make speeches, join corporate boards and the like. A few months worth of platitudes and homilies to trade association conferences could cover the entire bill, including the 10 percent interest.

Moreover, what is to stop Dole from forgiving the loan after Gingrich leaves Congress? Or making the terms even sweeter? And what would prevent grateful friends, corporations and lobbyists from presenting financial gifts to Gingrich, which he could use to repay the loan? Gingrich will even be free to take out another loan to reimburse Dole. The bottom line: Gingrich does not have to pay a penny of the ethics fine until he is out of the House -- beyond the reach of the body he misled and to whom his debt is truly owed.

One of Gingrich's favorite subjects for pontification is personal responsibility. How many average Americans who are caught in a similar bind -- a court fine, say, or an IRS penalty -- are able to escape with such ease?

In recent weeks, Gingrich's friends in the conservative movement have countered the rising criticism of him with the mantra, "Newt is the Republican Party." With GOP elder statesman Dole playing savior, Republican House members cheering the deal and Gingrich claiming he has honored his commitment, the Party shows that its definition of responsibility is rather more liberal than conservative.

By David Corn

David Corn is the Washington editor of the Nation, a columnist for the New York Press and author of a political suspense novel, "Deep Background" (St.Martin's Press).

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