On Touchy Subject, Speaker Stays Quiet
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 1998; Page A6
WESTLAND, Mich. – Former Michigan Republican Rep. Dick Chrysler had tried to warm up the crowd by invoking the specter of "President Gore." And someone was peddling fake dollar bills with unflattering pictures of President Clinton, Monica S. Lewinsky and the first lady under headings like "The Debauched States of America."
But while the signs of scandal abounded, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) ignored them. All day long he had been campaigning for Republican House candidates, and the word "impeachment" hadn't once crossed his lips.
Crisscrossing Michigan on Thursday – the day after Congress adjourned for the year – Gingrich touted welfare reform, tax relief and defense spending, never mentioning that the chamber he controls recently voted for the third time in history to investigate whether a sitting president deserves to be removed from office. When he spoke here on behalf of Republican challenger Tom Hickey, Gingrich mentioned Clinton's problems but insisted they weren't important and openly mocked "the maniacal fixation of the national press" on the president's relationship with Lewinsky.
"It's not about gossip and scandal in the White House," Gingrich told the crowd. "This election is about major policy questions and two very different directions the country could go in."
As far his fellow House Republicans are concerned, any comment from Gingrich on Clinton and his troubles would likely produce more damage than benefits. Every time the speaker has offered an opinion on the subject, from vowing to highlight "crimes" in the White House to arguing that only a pattern of felonies would warrant impeachment, he has provoked a backlash. And, confident that their conservative base has already been energized by the investigation and the comments of other leaders such as House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), Gingrich and his aides have decided that saying anything would only bolster Democrats' assertions that he is masterminding the House inquiry.
"He would not get into a discussion of the impeachment inquiry now because it might be seen as trying to influence the process," explained Gingrich adviser and GOPAC executive director Rich Galen.
Ever since independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr delivered his report to Congress in September, Gingrich has vowed that Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) would steer the course of any investigation, despite Democratic charges that he is furtively engineering the operation.
Interviews with Judiciary staff, the House leadership and several of Gingrich's close advisers support the speaker's contention. Hyde has no regularly scheduled meetings with Gingrich and has only formally briefed him twice on what the committee has been doing. Hyde announced his "New Year's resolution" to finish the probe by the end of the year without consulting with Gingrich, and the speaker did not meet with Judiciary Republicans before any of the key votes they cast in committee on the Starr report.
While Gingrich has an aide who serves as a liaison to Judiciary, and in closed-door meetings has repeatedly indicated he hoped any probe would explore broader patterns of alleged wrongdoing by the Clinton administration, he has refrained from instructing Hyde on how to define the scope of the investigation. As if to underscore this point, Gingrich stood silent in speaker's chair as lawmakers bickered this month over how the House should probe the president.
By contrast, While House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) has immersed himself in the impeachment proceedings, providing input on everything from staff hires to the party's strategy for this month's inquiry vote.
Former Rep. Robert S. Walker (R-Pa.), one of Gingrich's closest friends from Congress, said Republicans on and off the Hill who have been alarmed by the public's reaction to the House inquiry have suggested to him that "Newt needs to get this straightened out," he said, but that strategy rests on the assumption that he is managing the process.
"My response to them has been it's fine to talk to Newt, but if you think it will result in Newt ordering Henry to do something, that's not real," Walker said.
That lack of management has created some nervousness among Republicans, who believe the House's handling of the Starr report has already hurt them politically and could create an even more vexing dilemma once the election is over.
"There's really no sense of where they're going," said one GOP lobbyist of the House leadership. "They didn't look at say, 'We want to remove Bill Clinton from office. How do we get from here to there.'‚"
For now, Gingrich is focused on expanding the Republican majority that will determine whether he remains speaker. By Election Day he will have campaigned in 49 states for House candidates since January 1997. As of mid-October Gingrich had raised almost $70 million for Republicans during that period, including $8 million for House incumbents and challengers.
To the Republicans who turned out in Michigan this week to see the speaker, Gingrich has negotiated the risky subject of impeachment perfectly.
Diane Neyer and Dave Lyle, who were attending a $60,000 fund-raiser in Acme Thursday for Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak's Republican challenger, Michelle McManus, kept finishing each other's sentences as they rushed to praise Gingrich. "He's just kind of taking a low-keyed attitude," Neyer said, as Lyle chimed in, "statesmanlike," before Neyer finished, "letting the process move forward."
The speaker then devoted his speech to extolling the need for American leadership abroad and the creation of a national missile defense system. At the Hickey rally he deliberately played to the young audience, declaring that "the worst single day in the war on drugs came when President Clinton went on MTV and joked about inhaling marijuana."
Once the elections are over, however, some Republicans say they will look to Gingrich to extricate them from the predicament they would face if the Judiciary Committee votes out articles of impeachment and it is clear that there are not enough votes in the Senate to convict the president. While a strong showing at the polls next month might embolden House Republicans to vote for impeachment, several have indicated that it would not fundamentally change the dynamics in the Senate if Clinton's approval ratings remained high.
Gingrich's former chief of staff, Dan Meyer, observed that in times of trouble, lawmakers would turn to the speaker.
"People are very content to let the folks on the line, in this case Henry Hyde, run the show unless it stops going fine, and then people go to Newt and say, 'Fix it,'‚" Meyer said. "Unless it starts getting screwed up, he'll be happy to defer to Henry."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company