Very few politicians have provided as much villainous entertainment over the years as Newt Gingrich, who now assures everyone that he has "matured" since his brief and tumultuous reign on Capitol Hill.
While the former speaker may at last have settled into a third marriage, there is no sign of improvement in his character. He is rising in current polls because Mitt Romney repels many Republicans and he is the last alternative. But Gingrich's most recent debate performance revealed the same brazen dissembler whose flaws proved ruinous to him and — were he to win the nomination — would be disastrous for his party. On Nov. 9, with millions watching, he uttered a bald lie that revived memories of his most embarrassing moments in Washington.
The moment of truth — or more accurately, falsehood — came when CNBC's John Harwood noted that back in 2006, Gingrich was paid $300,000 by Freddie Mac, the gigantic federally backed housing financier. "What did you do for that money?" asked Harwood, while attempting to suggest that Gingrich sought to "fend off" stricter regulation of Freddie Mac and its sister company, Fannie Mae, by officials in the Bush administration and the Federal Reserve worried about the firms' inflated $5 trillion in mortgage securities.
"I offered them advice on precisely what they didn't do," replied Gingrich, who went on to claim that "as a historian," he had warned the Freddie Mac officials who hired him that their lending practices were causing "a bubble" that was "insane" and "impossible." He was not a lobbyist, he proclaimed, but a prophet: "It turned out, unfortunately, that I was right. ... And I think it's a good case for breaking up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and getting much smaller institutions back into the private sector to be competitive and to be responsible for their behavior."
The transcript shows that after Gingrich pronounced those closing conservative buzzwords — "private sector," "competitive," "responsible" — the audience applauded.
All politicians lie, but Gingrich specializes in this brand of self-puffing fantasy. The actual history of his employment by Freddie Mac, as excavated first by reporters at the Associated Press and more recently at Bloomberg News, is far less flattering to the former speaker than his own dramatic account. According to stories published by both news services since the debate, Freddie Mac hired Gingrich precisely to head off stronger regulation by arguing to Republicans that the mortgage firm had demonstrated the benefits of private-public partnerships.
The executives who dealt with Gingrich remember no brisk lectures from the former history professor about their risky "bubble." Instead, he attended strategy sessions at Freddie Mac's Washington offices — and failed to live up to their hope that he would provide useful advice or written materials defending their business. As a congressman from Georgia, he promoted the same lending to low- and moderate-income homeowners that he now denounces so bitterly, and got on the Freddie Mac sugar teat in 1999, within a year after resigning his congressional seat in disgrace. Indeed, today Bloomberg reports that Gingrich stuffed his bulging pockets with as much as $1.8 million in Freddie Mac consulting fees between 1999 and 2007.
Confronted with the Freddie Mac denials this week, a Gingrich spokesman had the gall to cite a "confidentiality clause" in his 2006 contract that prohibits him from discussing his work for them. Evidently that clause only forbids him from telling the truth about the consulting deal, while leaving him free to invent a version that portrays him as prescient and honest.
Gingrich's conduct may not trouble the pork-choppers in the Republican hierarchy, who punted him as speaker only when he became a political liability after the Bill Clinton impeachment fiasco. But it ought to infuriate the tea party faction, which supposedly despises Washington insiders feeding off the public-private teat, as Gingrich obviously did. He says that every contract he has signed since leaving Congress stipulates that he isn't a lobbyist — but many more questions might now be asked about the specifics of his "non-lobbying" business as an agent of influence for those who could pay his exorbitant fee.
As Salon.com's Joan Walsh so wittily put it, even Newt's baggage has baggage. His crude mistreatment of his first two wives makes Herman Cain look chivalrous; his flip-flopping on climate change and health care makes Mitt Romney look consistent; his anti-Muslim extremism (almost) makes Michele Bachmann sound tolerant; and his record as the first and only speaker ever to be punished by the House Ethics Committee makes Rick Perry appear virtuous. That momentary lead in primary polls may make Democrats wishful and hopeful, but this sequel to his failed career is more likely to end in farce — just like the original.
Joe Conason is the editor in chief of NationalMemo.com. To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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