Cover Story

Has Newt Gingrich changed?

"Has Newt Gingrich changed?" Continued...

Issue: "Tour d'America," June 18, 2011

If Clinton had this information about Gingrich, why wouldn't he have arranged to have someone on his team leak it to a reporter in a way that would get the news out without White House fingerprints on it? Why wouldn't Carville & Co. have used it in 1998 when Bill Clinton's presidency was hanging by a thread that Republicans were eager to cut? That year the extramarital histories of Henry Hyde, R-Ill., and Bob Livingston, R-La., became public. Why not Gingrich's?

One argument is that outing Gingrich was logically inconsistent and politically unnecessary. The Clinton position all along was that his sexual activities were no big deal, so making a big deal of someone else's would seem hypocritical. Given Frank's knowledge, it's significant that Salon.com quoted him in August 1998 as opposing the tactic of bringing up sexual affairs because Clinton would "win the fight without it, and it looks nasty; it looks as if you have no defense. It becomes a mutual suicide."

Another reason is that Clinton involvement in outing others could increase impeachment hazards. Clinton's many supporters argued that the president's perjury was of the garden-variety, self-protective kind seen ever since Eden, not a high crime and misdemeanor. Using executive branch resources to blackmail the highest-ranking member of the House, though, was a different matter that-if it could be traced to the White House-might lead to the impeachment and conviction that Clinton was desperately trying to prevent.

Hustler investigator Dan Moldea, who dug up dirt on Hyde, Livingston, and others, said he knew he "might be called to testify, somewhere or someplace. Consequently, I was extremely careful about whom I did and did not contact. Neither Flynt nor I even considered any communication with anyone at the White House. And the White House never attempted to contact us. . . . No member of our team ever approached any of our targets and posed any threats and/or ultimatums-or participated in any other activity that could even remotely be viewed as blackmail or extortion."

Some doubt that account, and doubt also the view that the best bet for Clintonites was a middle ground between exposing Gingrich and ignoring his affair: Subtly indicating that they knew, with Gingrich's knowledge of their knowledge serving as some restraint on his conduct. James Rogan, a thoughtful member of the House Judiciary Committee then, and now a California Superior Court judge, thinks that theory gives the Clinton administration too much credit: Some might think the White House "had a cruise missile that could have taken out the command and control center of their enemy," but "when I was in D.C. the Clintons knew only one kind of warfare-bare knuckles."

Maybe, but Salon.com often served as a Clinton mouthpiece, so three stories in August 1998 are worth noting. The first, on Aug. 3, noted rumors concerning Gingrich but argued that Clinton should "forswear the kind of nastiness they have deployed against him. To respond in kind would do further harm to the nation without helping him."

The second possible warning shot, on Aug. 5, reported a potential Clinton administration plan to expose GOP sexual improprieties (with Newt Gingrich the first person named as "under scrutiny") and quoted one "close ally of the president" saying, "We're talking about the Doomsday Machine here. Once the Doomsday Machine is set in motion, there will be no stopping it."

The third Salon.com story, on Aug. 28, reported that "Newt Gingrich did a strange thing this week: He restrained himself. . . . Newt is subdued, his criticism of Clinton muted. . . . It's tempting to congratulate Gingrich for his understanding of human frailty, but don't mistake his comments for Christian charity. . . . It's not compassion that tempers the speaker's censure of Clinton's self-destructive sexual compulsions. It's self-protection. Gingrich, lest we forget, has a closet full of sexual misconduct. . . . Gingrich is wise to remain hesitant to resume his once obligatory role of attack dog. Better that he growl harmlessly, while staying securely on his leash."

Was Gingrich on a leash? Gingrich vigorously denied that in emails to me: "There is no example in my career of my backing down out of fear over anything. . . . My father spent 27 years as an infantryman. One of my closest friends is an 8 year POW in Vietnam. It would be impossible to blackmail me."

For evidence to support his contention that he did not back down in his battles with Bill Clinton, Gingrich pointed to Gillon's The Pact-but that solid historical work does not provide much of a defense. Gillon writes that in 1998 Gingrich "went from blasting Clinton in April for being the most corrupt president in history to giving him a free pass in August"-the month that those Salon.com warnings emerged. Gillon refers to Gingrich as "uncharacteristically uncertain" and sending "mixed signals." He suggests that Gingrich in criticizing Clinton "must have realized that he was vulnerable to similar charges." He reports that conservatives felt Gingrich "had gone soft on the president."

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