When the history of Newt Gingrich's ethical predicaments is written, one of the better ironies will be that the struggle to decide the Speaker's fate gave rise to--what else?--a whole new ethical funk. No matter what its outcome, the vote on whether Gingrich remains as Speaker of the House will reverberate through the work of the next Congress and its balance of terror between Republicans and Democrats. But before that, Newt's delicate condition and the ways in which his party rushed to his rescue will offer a priceless view of just how badly Washington handles ethical screw-ups. Even when everybody knows that everybody is watching.
For one thing, money--where it comes from, where it goes--has always been at the heart of the charges against Gingrich. In the main, he's accused of improperly taking tax-deductible contributions made to various nonprofit foundations and funneling them into party-building activities for the G.O.P., then misleading the ethics committee when it investigated those dealings. So when it came time to decide his fitness as Speaker, it might have been better if House members had been spared any hints that their future withdrawals from the G.O.P. campaign-finance account might depend on how they voted. Niceties like that are what ethics are all about. But expediency is what politics is often about.
That's why the chief officers of the National Republican Congressional Committee, the party's own pocketbook for congressional races, were all over the place in the past few weeks, pushing the undecided to get with the program. Anyone in politics will tell you--in the end, your heart is in your campaign chest.
The effort to save Newt reached a peak last week with the release of a letter signed by Representatives Porter Goss of Florida and Steve Schiff of New Mexico, the two Republicans on the four-member ethics subcommittee responsible for investigating Gingrich. As such they were the only Republicans with firsthand knowledge of the range of evidence against him. In their letter they announced their intention to vote for Gingrich and said they knew of "no reason now, nor do we foresee any in the normal course of events in the future, why Newt Gingrich would be ineligible to serve as Speaker."
For members of the ethics committee to make such a statement while a case is still under investigation is highly unusual. Even more unusual, however, is the way the letter originated. Schiff told TIME that it was prepared in response to urgings by Representatives Bill Paxon of New York and John Linder of Georgia, respectively the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the National Republican Congressional Committee. For weeks, both men had been pressing G.O.P. House members in general to get behind Gingrich, advice that would be taken seriously by anybody expecting to need campaign funding for 1998.