Newt Gingrich can't afford to sound like a nutcake


WASHINGTON -- Newt Gingrich seems to have trouble understanding one of the laws of political leadership -- that words have consequences.

The House speaker's declaration that he cannot "accept" the verdict of suicide in the death of White House deputy counsel Vincent W. Foster Jr. is the kind of thing conspiracy theoreticians need for their wild ideas about Foster's death two years ago.

"There's something that doesn't fit about this whole case and the way it's been handled," Gingrich said. "I'm not convinced he didn't [commit suicide]. I'm just not convinced he did." Then he added, "I believe there are plausible grounds to wonder what happened and very real grounds to wonder why it was investigated so badly."

If these comments had been made by some wild-eyed back-bencher in the House, they might be dismissed as just more evidence that there are a few nutcakes elected every two years. But Newt Gingrich is the speaker of the House and, for all practical purposes, the titular leader of the Republican Party today.

So he has given far more respectability to the conspiracy theories than they have been given by anyone in any position of authority in the past.

Under ordinary circumstances, Gingrich might be forgiven for making an impolitic comment on a touchy issue. Most politicians make such blunders from time to time.

But the statement is part of a pattern. Only two weeks ago, for example, Gingrich offhandedly endorsed diplomatic recognition for Taiwan -- at the very moment the Clinton administration was negotiating with the regime in mainland China over the detention of an American citizen, Harry Wu, who was investigating human rights abuses. As a piece of diplomatic timing, it could not have been worse.

Gingrich, however, seems to feel he is free to share every thought that pops into his mind. Appearing before the Republican National Committee in Philadelphia the other day, for instance, he blithely proposed that a national referendum be conducted on the legalization of drugs to clear the way, once legalization was rejected, for draconian treatment of drug dealers and users.

Gingrich is paying something of a price for his big mouth. Opinion polls show him with consistently high negative ratings as well as high positives, meaning that he is proving to be a polarizing figure. One result is that some members of his new Republican majority in the House are growing a little uneasy about being too closely identified with him. As one Southern freshman said privately, "When I go home, I don't kiss Newt too much."

In fact, nonetheless, the speaker is clearly the star of the 'N Republican Party these days -- the most exciting figure since Ronald Reagan emerged as a national candidate more than 15 years ago. Republican leaders around the country are clamoring for him to speak at their functions. For example, he attracted 2,100 paying guests to a fund-raiser in Indianapolis this week.

In the Vincent Foster case, there is an added dimension to Gingrich's apparent willingness to credit the darkest suspicions. Richard M. Scaife, a wealthy ultraconservative Republican from Pennsylvania, has been involved in funding both groups promoting conspiracy theories on Foster's death and groups such as GOPAC, a political action committee Gingrich led for several years before becoming speaker.

Thus, it would come as no surprise if the conspiratorialists now begin using the speaker's statements in new rounds of advertising designed to raise money for further "investigations" of the case.

Gingrich's decision to involve himself in the Foster case comes at a time when a Senate committee led by Sen. Alfonse M. D'Amato of New York is taking testimony on the same case. But the committee ostensibly is focusing on the behavior of Clinton administration staff members after Foster's suicide rather than on suggestions that Foster had been murdered.

In fact, there is no evidence to indicate Foster's death was not what it appeared to be. The U.S. Park Police ruled the death a suicide, and so did an earlier inquiry by special prosecutor Robert B. Fiske Jr. But Fiske's successor, Kenneth W. Starr, has been going over the same ground.

So far the evidence suggests the White House handling of Foster's files and records after his death was untidy at best. But there has been no evidence to feed the conspiracy theories Gingrich is unwilling to dismiss.

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