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Gingrich Bows Out, Thankfully

By Debra Saunders

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich talks a great game. He gives good quote. Consider this vintage Gingrich sound-bite in the Las Vegas Review-Journal last week: "I am fed up with the excuses we're given for spending too much, doing too little and not being honest about reality. I think we need to have the moral courage, and frankly the psychological courage, to understand that politics is not a game. I am for a clean break." In that spirit, Gingrich told Fox News last Sunday that he felt "a responsibility to run" for president if his supporters can muster $30 million in campaign pledges.

The fantasy ended Saturday, when a spokesman announced that Gingrich would not be running for president in 2008. Instead, he will remain head of the tax-exempt group American Solutions.

It's just as well. He would have been the wrong choice at the wrong time for the Republican party.

It's true, Gingrich put together a brilliant campaign to win Republican control of the House in 1994. Since he resigned as speaker in 1998, he has used his gift of gab to say things incumbents are too careful to say. Of late, Gingrich has become a go-to guy for GOPers dissatisfied with George W. Bush, and journalists in search of a quick quote hitting Bush on his handling of the Iraq war or, for example, a Republican who called early on for Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to resign.

All that attention can go to a man's big head - and Gingrich does have a big head. So it's no small wonder that Gingrich hasn't figured out that he comes across as charming and thoughtful only because he no longer is in office. When Gingrich was speaker, and his rhetoric often did not comport with his conduct in power, he came across as a windbag.

Like most voters, I do not want to judge a man harshly on his personal life and marriage. But there are candidates - pick your fave - who make it impossible to look away. Gingrich did so as he talked up "family values" while stepping out on his second wife and courting the present and third Mrs. G.

When the GOP was out of power, Gingrich was the firebrand who took on entrenched Democrats who had turned the House into their own private club. But when he assumed the speakership, he turned into the very type of politician he had once assailed.

Gingrich maneuvered around House rules that prohibited members from accepting speaking fees from special interests, by allowing Atlantic Richfield Company to bankroll a 1997 speaking trip to London. The Gingrich entourage included his wife and two aides. In five short days they burned through more than $40,000. Unbowed, Gingrich explained to the Washington Post, "Every American should make this trip."

Speaker Gingrich was forced to admit that he had written "inaccurate and misleading" letters to the House ethics committee - which earned him a whopping $300,000 fine. The committee had been looking into the questionable tax-deductible status of donations to fund a college course he taught, "Renewing American Civilization." It was more than ironic that America's Cato could not teach a simple course on this country's "core values" without being greased to the tune of $300,000 to $450,000 in donations.

The worst of it is that Gingrich misbehaved in such a blatant manner - even though he knew that Democratic leaders were gunning for him. He all but handed them the bullets, and let a Clinton roll him.

Gingrich also had a starring role in the 1995 federal government shutdown, which turned out to be a political disaster for the GOP. And he didn't help himself when he told reporters that he maneuvered the shutdown in part because he was angry at a perceived snub from President Clinton. The Newter believes Clinton failed to show him and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole sufficient courtesy by having them exit Air Force One by the rear stairs. The New York Daily News summed up the story well with the headline, "CRY BABY."

Later, although Gingrich argued Republicans were "committed to making government leaner, more efficient and cost effective," his House passed such big-spending measures as a landmark pork-laden public works bill. The out-of-control growth in government under Bush that so angered the GOP base was in play in Casa Gingrich.

When you look at the reasons voters rejected the GOP in 2006 - profligate spending, corruption and hypocrisy - it's would have been hard to argue for a Gingrich candidacy.

He had his chance - and he blew it.

dsaunders@sfchronicle.com

COPYRIGHT 2007 CREATORS SYNDICATE INC.


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