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.

"The election process has turned into an incumbency protection process in which lobbyists attend PAC fundraisers to raise money for incumbents so they can drown potential opponents, thus creating war chests that convince candidates not to run and freeing up incumbents to spend more time in Washington PAC fundraisers. So, in effect, this city is building a wall of money to protect itself from America."

Gingrich's assessment was at odds with those of President Bush and GOP leaders in Congress.

Asked whether Bush worries about "a culture of favors" in Washington, White House press secretary Scott McClellan, at a briefing just after Gingrich's speech, replied: "Well, you're speculating based on facts that aren't known at this point."

A couple of hours later, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) issued an upbeat statement that Abramoff's plea "indicates that our system of justice works and those who break the law for personal gain find no favor in Washington."

At points, Gingrich was careful to mention that the abuses are bipartisan. But voters usually punish the majority party when conversation turns, as Gingrich's did yesterday, to Congress's "orgy of spending" and the complaint that lawmakers "raise the same money with the same cronies."

Gingrich skipped some of the most inflammatory rhetoric in his prepared text, including the suggestions that "Abramoff is only the tip of the iceberg" and that Congress should "eliminate from authority those with bad judgment."

Was he talking about Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.)? Reporters surrounded Gingrich after the speech to find out -- and Gingrich confirmed that Republicans should elect a new House majority leader. "I see no prospect that DeLay will in any sense be cleared in any reasonable time," he said. Gingrich was asked whether DeLay's leadership had contributed to the GOP problems. "I'm not going to comment on that," he said, thereby providing all the comment necessary.

The speaker advised his former colleagues to hold urgent hearings, and to come up with legislation that, among other things, bans fundraising in Washington and forces disclosure of all contact with lobbyists. The Spirit of '94, he said, is at stake.

"That legacy hangs in the balance," he said. "We arrived here as a reform party. . . . We were real and we were serious."

So what happened to Republicans in Congress? "You have to go ask them," the former speaker said.

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