There is much to be said against Newt Gingrich, and I’ll admit I’ve said some of it. His ambition is, as George Will said in this interview with Laura Ingraham today (available via the Daily Caller), fueled by delusions of grandeur in which he is the second coming of Winston Churchill and Charles De Gaulle while at the same time being largely devoid of much wisdom. His positions are those of a “big government conservative” who latches on to every intellectual fad that comes down the road. And his post-congressional career as a D.C. influence peddler (don’t call him a “lobbyist”) led him to support a number of causes, including the ethanol boondoggle and the Freddie Mac housing subsidies, that no respectable conservative political thinker should have been caught dead backing.
But when it comes to criticizing him for the amount of money in his bank account now as opposed to when he first arrived in Washington as a member of Congress from Georgia in January 1979, I say it’s time for Newt-bashers to calm down and back off. A piece in today’s Roll Call reports the fact that Gingrich left Congress a much wealthier man than he left it. While it is true many politicians have enriched themselves via various forms of corruption during their time on Capitol Hill, I don’t think it’s fair to put Gingrich in the same category as those like Lyndon Johnson or Duke Cunningham (who, unlike LBJ, was nabbed for his nefarious conduct). There is nothing wrong with making money by writing books or giving speeches, which was the only way Gingrich supplemented his income during this period.
Though it has become a familiar theme with some conservative activists, the plain fact of the matter is members of Congress are not overpaid, either now or 30 years ago when Gingrich arrived on the scene. An increasing number of politicians come to Congress with great wealth. That is something that is the direct result of campaign finance “reform” which gives those who don’t need contributions a leg up. But most members are far from rich and understandably find the task of maintaining two households (one in their constituency and one in Washington) a difficult task. They may not deserve the sympathy of voters — most earn far less than their member of Congress — but neither should we seek to reduce their pay, as Rick Perry has demanded. Doing so will just make it even harder to recruit candidates who are not independently wealthy.
While it’s fair to say Gingrich used his time in Congress relentlessly promoting himself as well as his ideas, there is a big difference between the money he made then off books and speeches and the kind of graft that sometimes enriches members of our political class. If his books sold well and people wanted to hear him speak, so much the better for him, and we ought not to begrudge him his royalties and honorariums. Even after he became Speaker and thus a public figure much in demand, he was not, as Roll Call puts it, “a financial titan.” And it should also be pointed out that he was forced to disgorge a lot of the money he made while in Congress to charities because of restrictions on his income. He also lost most of the money he might have made off a rich book deal after he became Speaker because it violated House rules.
Even if we look at his less savory post-congressional career as an influence peddler, one can’t say he did anything unethical, even if it is hypocritical of him to deny he has become the quintessential Washington insider who helped people game the system. Gingrich became wealthy because a lot of people have bought his books, paid to hear him speak or believed he was an effective spokesperson for their causes. There’s nothing dishonorable about that, even if some of those causes were not ones I think he should have been supporting (and like Will, I’ll take him at his word that he didn’t take money to flack for causes or ideas he didn’t already support). He may not be the right person to lead the Republican Party or the country, but he is no crook.