Gingrich may have set standard for accountability

Nothing better became Newt Gingrich in his tenure as speaker of the House of Representatives than his manner of leaving it. In this age of spin, polling, "sound bites" and avoidance of accountability, Gingrich departs his office much as he entered it, a rare breed in Washington. In one stroke, he took responsibility for his party's disappointing showing in the recent elections, accepted the consequences, deprived the opposition of a useful target and changed the subject of the national debate away from the election returns and the president's fortunes in Congress to the issues. He laid the path for his own political comeback, should he wish one. With his political obituary the cover story of the nation's weekly magazines, the prospect of Gingrich's re-emergence as a key player on the American political scene may seem an unlikely prospect to his admirers and detractors. But Gingrich, the Ph.D. and former professor, is enough of an historian to know that others have overcome and risen above similar defeats. Gingrich's self-imposed departure from the political scene falls on the anniversary of another famous loss for his party. Thirty-six years ago, Richard Nixon lost his race for governor of California. (Like this year, the GOP did not do as well in 1962 as it had hoped. It picked up only two House seats.) Nixon fell victim to the ineptness of his own campaign (California Attorney General Dan Lungren, who lost a lackluster election race to Lt. Gov. Gray Davis, seems to have followed Nixon's old playbook) and an unexpected surge of support for the Democratic administration after John F. Kennedy's deft handling of the Cuban Missile crisis. But no one foresaw when Nixon lashed out at the press (he showed none of Gingrich's grace) and made a promise he would not keep ("gentlemen, this is my last press conference") that he would be elected president of the United States six Novembers later. They preferred harping on his phrase, "You won't have Nixon to kick around any more" (a term now being applied to Gingrich). How did Nixon make his comeback? As Gingrich has done, he announced that he would take some time off and begin a new career. He left California for New York, where he became somewhat of a rainmaker for a Wall Street law firm. He then spent his time traveling the world, posing with prominent world leaders and writing articles (the most famous of which was a piece in Foreign Affairs urging the United States to rethink its policy toward a nation that called itself the People's Republic of China). Nixon's trajectory is a fitting model. Gingrich, after all, is already on good terms with Lady Margaret Thatcher. Perhaps he will work with other conservatives to build an international counter to the "third wavers" Blair, Clinton and Schroeder. He should do fine with the media. Whatever problems he encountered as speaker, finding a microphone or a publisher were not among them. Nixon sat out a couple elections. He watched as moderates and conservative Republicans battled it out for control of the party, rendering the 1964 GOP nomination worthless. Favored by neither but acceptable to both, the "new Nixon" was back in the saddle in 1968. He helped himself along the way by campaigning for Republican candidates across the country and helping the party refill its depleted coffers. The rest, as they say, is history. Were Gingrich to attempt a comeback, what aspects of his legacy might he stress in the days and years ahead? He led the GOP to control of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years. He transformed the party from the "get along, go along" Rayburn, Albert, Foley imitators to the party of ideas. He was the first speaker since Henry Clay who espoused and enacted a program. Clay had "internal improvements" and "manifest destiny." Gingrich was instrumental in reforming welfare, balancing the budget and strengthening defense. He twice accepted the consequences of his mistakes. First, using his own funds, he reimbursed the House of Representatives for costs of its investigation into his campaign practices. Second, he resigned his post for the good of his party. Now what if it became all the rage really to take responsibility for your actions? What if pollsters, pundits and party faithful see Gingrich's style as a good example? They may also expect the president and his advisers to take responsibility for their actions - just like Newt Gingrich. If only out of a perceived or feigned sense of fairness, pundits and pollsters may start holding all public figures to new standards of accountability. That will also become part of Gingrich's legacy. It may not be long before President Clinton, who just a few days ago appeared to have been the major beneficiary of the election, begins pining openly for the return of Newt. By his chosen method of departure, Gingrich may have inflicted more harm on his enemies than he knew.

Dr. Alvin Felzenberg

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