When a Firebrand Burns His Bridges

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 5, 2006

The fiery phrases and righteous anger were straight out of 1994. But this time, Newt Gingrich was turning his famous indignation on fellow Republicans:

"Cronies behaving as cronies!"

"Indifference to right and wrong!"

"A system of corruption!"

"Clean up this mess!"

A day after former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff's first guilty plea, the former House speaker was in the Hotel Washington yesterday, telling a group of Rotarians how rotten the capital has become -- and warning that the Republican Revolution is being betrayed.

"There are a series of behaviors, a series of attitudes, a series of crony-like activities that are not defensible, and no Republican should try to defend them," Gingrich fumed.

The ex-speaker is an imperfect messenger on such matters (he had to pay $300,000 in 1997 to settle ethics violations). But Republicans who remember how Gingrich vanquished the Democrats in 1994 with charges of corruption have reason to worry: His charge of cronyism echoes one of the Democrats' campaign slogans this year.

"It's very important to understand this is not one person doing one bad thing," he advised. "You can't have a corrupt lobbyist unless you have a corrupt member or a corrupt staff. . . . This was a team effort."

But will his former colleagues hear his warning? Gingrich's venue yesterday was decidedly second-tier. Vice President Cheney had booked the Heritage Foundation, so Gingrich joined the little-known Rotary Club of Washington, D.C., in the basement of the down-at-the-heels Hotel Washington in a ballroom scented strongly by pot roast and decorated with felt Rotary banners and balloons from a previous party.

The former speaker found himself in a meeting reminiscent of Fred Flintstone's gatherings at the Water Buffaloes Lodge. After the ringing of a bell, Gingrich was compelled to join hands in "the sacred Rotary wheel" and join in a Native American benediction praying to the "Great Spirit" for the "return of robins and other creatures." He declined to join Rotarians in singing "Hail to the Redskins," though he could not avoid drawing the raffle winner at the end.

It was an incongruous setting for the dire alarm the former speaker sounded, calling the scandal "central to the survival of the United States" and "a serious, profound challenge" to our system of government. "The Abramoff scandal has to be seen as part of a much larger and deeper problem," what the Founders would see as "a system of corruption," Gingrich said.

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