Countdown to Indictment

Unbeknownst to Newt, some of his lieutenants are holding secret sessions to plan what they will do if he’s indicted.

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Rush doesn’t want anyone picking on the boy. Right after the election, he said on his radio show: “They’ve given up going after what Newt believes. Now they want to mischaracterize what he believes and then attack him personally.”

When the master of character assassination starts whining, you know a nerve has been struck. Rush is particularly incensed by the ethics charge filed against Newt by Democrats in the House. “This is absolutely stupid and silly. Mr. Newt won’t dignify this charge with an answer, but I will.”

What is Rush’s answer to the charge that Mr. Newt solicited illicit contributions to his televised history class? “This is so ridiculous–no one watches this! It is on Channel 98 for goodness’ sake!”

Ethics and impact mingle in a bully’s mind. Rush isn’t denying that Newt inserted testimonials for companies into his college lectures–even showed their promotional videos–after they coughed up cash to Newt’s nonprofit foundation. No, Rush is claiming that if these companies were simply buying commercials, they paid an exorbitant rate for time on a minor video channel. And since corporate executives aren’t stupid, obviously nothing illegal occurred.

Rush’s crude logic makes some sense if advertising is all Newt’s benefactors are expecting to get back. Or if these donations are the sum of what Newt received. But the House ethics complaint (though it appears minor) threatens to pry open Newt’s books. A competent investigation by an outside counsel would certainly produce revelations crying out for a criminal indictment.

That Newt is a cheater, that Newt and Rush are bombastic bullies–this isn’t news to Mother Jones readers. What’s noteworthy about this moment in American politics is the Democrats’ unwillingness to launch a focused attack. They are retreating hastily on several legislative fronts, resisting on a few others. Overall, the losses are staggering and bound to get worse. The only open flank leads, amazingly, to the King of the Hill’s ethical Achilles’ heel. And yet the Democrats hesitate.

You don’t have to take my opinion alone about Newt’s vulnerability. The rest of the Republican leadership is exquisitely aware of his ethical failings. Unbeknownst to Newt (until he reads this editor’s note), some of his lieutenants are holding secret sessions to plan what they will do if Newt is ever indicted.

The Republicans are planning their defense eight moves in advance. The Democrats don’t even have an attack plan. Rush alludes to the Democrats’ “operation research staff of 1,000.” I visited the Democratic Party’s opposition research office and found four people, two of whom were preoccupied with managing a rambunctious child. The head honcho knew less about Newt than a techno-literate journalism student would discover by scanning databases for a few hours.

The ethics charges filed against Newt so far haven’t scratched the surface of his skin. And yet Newt is already scared. In person he’s polite, almost deferential, to Democratic Whip David Bonior, who filed the charges. But privately, Newt calls Rush and urges him to pile on ridicule. On his TV show Rush puts Bonior’s head on a yapping dog and repeatedly derides Bonior as a “Pit Yorkie.” Spurred on by these spots, Rush’s dittoheads and loving members of the Christian right besiege Bonior’s office with hate calls.

And what has Bonior dug up on Newt? Less than the Democrats’ opposition research team. A former Catholic seminarian, Bonior is simply willing to stand up.

And the press? As far as I can tell, only about eight serious reporters in the entire country are investigating Newt’s financial world.

It’s not as if the press, the Democrats, and even some of Newt’s colleagues wouldn’t attack the speaker if they felt he were in mortal political danger. But right now, they are afraid. The press doesn’t want to get out ahead of the story or the voters.

For example, as I write, NBC News has spent eight weeks sitting on an interview it did with Newt’s second wife, Marianne, who is being paid a base salary of $30,000 by the Israel Export Development Co. Newt’s friend Vin Weber (the former congressman and National Public Radio commentator) helped broker the creation of an Israeli free trade zone for this company. Weber was paid to obtain Newt’s and other American politicians’ influence; the company paid Newt back by hiring his wife. After Newt won the speakership, Marianne was promoted from a marketing representative to their vice president for business development. In addition to her salary, she’ll receive a “very substantial” commission for every export manufacturer–some of whom will doubtless have business before the U.S. Congress–that locates in the trade zone.

Her new boss claims that everything is kosher and that Marianne’s connections were irrelevant to her hiring. “We were looking for someone with her kind of experience.” (Marianne’s most recent job experience was doing makeovers and selling BeautiControl cosmetics out of her home.) The Associated Press’ Jerusalem correspondent sat in on the NBC interview and filed a brief report quoting Marianne’s disclaimer: “If I were going to get a political payoff, it would not be for the amount of money I am making.” During the rest of the interview, I’m told, Marianne seemed pathetically ill-informed.

Under oath, Vin Weber would probably be forced to admit that he broke the congressional regulation forbidding ex-members from lobbying their former colleagues within a one-year period after they leave office. Facing penalties, Weber might provide more information about how Newt lobbied the Israeli government. Similarly, under oath Rupert Murdoch and his lobbyist might recall the precise details of their private conversation with Newt on November 28. At that same time, Murdoch’s company, HarperCollins, was offering millions of dollars to Newt’s agent for a book (see “Publisher to the Powerful”).

These are only the most publicized of Newt’s questionable transactions. Under oath and facing jail time, a few of Newt’s contributors might discuss the tit they’ve gotten for tat. Most suspect are those telecommunication, resource, and biomedical companies that will immediately profit from Newt-led deregulation. Ace Ventura, pet detective, could find culprits.

Here’s one simple line of investigation: At this writing, Newt’s nonprofit think tank, the Progress & Freedom Foundation, has raised almost $2 million. It has solicited tax-deductible contributions not just for Newt’s televised history class, but also for attacks on federal laws that regulate corporations. For example, the Foundation’s Medical Innovation Project has helped launch the Republicans’ current assault on the FDA. Newt has already been exposed for having directly bullied the FDA on behalf of two Medical Innovation Project donors, Johnson & Johnson and Solvay.

An outside counsel should take testimony from other contributors with products under FDA regulation (e.g., Burroughs Wellcome, Glaxo, Genzyme, Searle). How were they approached for money? What are their charitable aims?

Simultaneously counsel should question the head of Newt’s foundation, Jeffrey Eisenach. What other letters did he and Newt send, what phone calls did they make, and what meetings did they take on behalf of these companies? And of course counsel should check all testimony against subpoenaed documents, phone logs, date books, and financial records. Since Eisenach was the executive director of Newt’s political action committee, GOPAC, when it was violating federal registration and disclosure laws, the outside counsel should trace the financial trail back to the early days. Did Newt fly on any donor’s jet? When Newt and Marianne were separated, who paid the extra rent? Did Newt declare all financial gifts?

Again, the key question is: Why haven’t the Democrats pressed for such investigations? Incompetence isn’t a sufficient explanation. The bottom line is that the Democrats are guilty of similar corruption themselves. For every Newt, the Demos have a Ron Brown. For every Newtian financier who wants to make a marketplace killing (even if it means killing some patients with flawed new drugs), the Demos have a client being serviced through their favorite investment banking firm, Goldman Sachs.

In the ’80s, compromised Democrats were afraid that Newt would single them out the same way that he targeted Speaker Jim Wright. Now many are even more worried because Newt has Rush and his 20 million listeners poised. No Democratic officials were willing to speak on camera for the recent “Frontline” documentary on Rush (see page 40). Even Mario Cuomo refused. The bully boys have cowed the opposition. Alas, a cowed opposition only encourages bullies to attack.

The Democrats rationalize that Newt will self-destruct. They point to his negative poll numbers, which keep rising. And they say privately that, as a villain, he’s good for their fundraising.

But the Democrats are in for a fund-raising surprise. Once they were the party of the poor; now they’re about to become a poor party. Newt is not only shaking down business PACs for more money, he’s pressuring them to decrease their contributions to the Democrats.

And they’ll listen because Newt and his gang have the power to deliver.

The House Commerce Committee, for example, is chaired by Thomas Bliley (R-Va.). A former funeral director, he’s not squeamish. The largest employer in his district is Philip Morris, and he’s received more tobacco PAC money than any other House member. The day after the election, he said, “I don’t think we need any more legislation regulating tobacco.” He’s now heading the hearings intended to rough up the FDA.

How do you deal with bullies?

I called several child psychologists around the country. The psychological portrait they sketched isn’t that complex. Bullies try to dominate in others what they find intolerable in themselves: vulnerability. Unlike most aggressive kids, who lash out at perceived assaults, bullies actively seek out the weak, the compromised, the ambivalent.

A woman who works with elementary school bullies told me she first asks the offender how he feels. This question can be disarming because most bullies have been bullied at home; no authority figure has ever inquired about the bully’s emotional life. The counselor also said bullying behavior can be altered if attended to before adolescence. Then she begged me not to use her name because she feared that her program was exactly the kind that Newt might single out for attack.

Some dittoheads and newtoids feel vulnerable as well. They actively identify with Rush and Newt because they fear their own vulnerability. The bully says, “Get behind me and you’ll be safe.”

Oddly enough, though, Rush’s chief vulnerability is probably his continuing embrace of Newt. The more that Rush becomes an apologist for those in power, the more his disempowered listeners will question his loyalty to them. The more wonkish and strained his shtick becomes, the less his audience will laugh.

Recently, at the end of a five-minute radio monologue defending Newt’s character, Rush urged his listeners to write letters and postcards to the new speaker reassuring him that they weren’t affected by the ethics charges.

“That’s the point. It’s not affecting you. You have not changed your opinion of him one iota. You have not decided he should do less. You have no second thoughts about Newt being where he is because of any of this nonsense in the press.. . .He’s doing all this stuff for you.”

What will Newt do when all this stuff he’s doing for himself becomes public? Usually Newt lashes out when he senses danger. He privately begged his Republican colleagues not to expose the House bank scandal because he had personally bounced 22 checks, including a $9,463 tax payment to the IRS. But when the decision was made to go public, Newt pre-empted the official announcement, claiming, “I fought for disclosure even though I knew I would be opening myself to public embarrassment.” Then he made a conference call to GOP challengers around the country urging them to label it “a Democratic machine political scandal.” On the campaign trail himself, he denounced the “cocaine-selling, check-bouncing, big-spending Democratic conspiracy.”

A focused investigation into Newt’s finances would surely incite similar pre-emptive strikes. Perhaps we would hear more from Newt about the lost value of shame. All the more reason to select as outside counsel a stern, old-fashioned Republican prosecutor. Details would emerge that might embarrass even some on the Christian right. Moderate Republicans would start putting distance between Newt and themselves.

If Newt is ever confronted by a coalition of honest politicians, he’ll collapse. He’ll resign to take on “greater challenges” rather than face censure from his colleagues, let alone a pending indictment. Like all bullies, Newt is a coward.


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