Even Gingrich bows out of impeachment process


WASHINGTON -- Somebody put out an all-points-bulletin for Newt Gingrich, the missing House speaker and one-time noisiest symbol of his party's anti-Clinton vitriol.

When last seen, Mr. Gingrich was posing for farewell photos for a long queue of Capitol fans. Then he vanished into Georgia. He's invisible and shyly silent, uncharacteristic traits.

Mr. Gingrich's AWOL during the Republicans' headlong stampede toward an impeachment vote, a vacuum as bizarre as John Elway forgetting to show up for a Super Bowl.

To demonstrate his wariness, Mr. Gingrich even ducked presiding in the speaker's chair at this week's House impeachment showdown. They had to tap a scrub, Rep. Ray LaHood, an Illinois Republican, to play speaker.

Out of work

Sure, Mr. Gingrich could be in sulky withdrawal after surrendering his job, thanks to November's election flop. Perhaps he doesn't want a starring role to be seen as settling old Clinton scores.

Or maybe, just maybe, Mr. Gingrich has a premonition of disaster.

Mr. Gingrich's memory is still raw on the last time Republicans had a brainstorm of this magnitude -- the government shutdown of 1995. Public anger plucked Mr. Clinton from his doldrums and helped re-elect him.

To paraphrase the Gipper, "Here they go again."

Watching Judiciary panel Republicans' lock-step march toward impeachment, you wonder if they're lemmings on a self-destructive hurtle into the sea.

Is this a political version of cultists doomed by following the Hale-Bopp comet? Jonestown without Kool-Aid?

I'm guessing at Mr. Gingrich's apprehensions -- he's atypically mute during this trumped-up drama. But a few other Republicans fear they'll pay a price for the cheap thrill of a partisan impeachment vote.

"They'll remember this stuff," ex-Republican Massachusetts Gov. William Weld warned Judiciary firebrands. "You're overthrowing a twice-elected president entitled to the job."

Translation: Do you guys have a death wish?

Remarkably, even as Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde's troops fired rhetorical broadsides as "Clinton as a Perjurer Destroying Law-n-Order," contrary polls held rock-steady: CNN, against impeachment 61 percent, for 34; NBC/Wall Street Journal, no impeachment 66 percent, yes 28.

Hyde & Co. wrap themselves in the Watergate mantle, noting that Richard Nixon sank into the polling swamplands before the 1974 panel's angst-ridden vote.

Sure, hotspurs such as Rep. Bob Barr, a Georgia Republican, insist, "I was sent here to use my conscience, not a finger in the wind."

Fine. Other Republican panelists rightfully exploded when Princeton professor Sean Wilentz told them a politically motivated impeachment would mark them as "zealots and fanatics," adding, "history will hunt you down for your cravenness."

That's rhetorical hype. But Republicans might take a future wallop for defying the popular will if they impeach Mr. Clinton -- a lopsided vote on a sexual lie whose yucky details they're embarrassed to discuss.

Mr. Hyde has long said, "Impeachment must be bipartisan." No chance. Imagine the House impeaches Mr. Clinton by, say, 215-210. No stock-market crash, no riots. But when apathy wears off, there could be aftershocks.

One theory comforting Republicans is the "free vote" -- Americans' memory span is so frazzled in this era of 24-hour breaking news, most will fuzz over the impeachment imbroglio by 2000.

Pollster John Zogby disagrees: "In modern, high-tech campaigns, it's easy with videotape to use a vote against somebody. This isn't a free ride."

Rep. Peter King, a New York Republican, a maverick opposing impeachment, is a worried Jeremiah. "It will relegate us to a minority party," Mr. King told the New York Times.

"We're shooting ourselves in the foot," said pro-abortion Republican activist Susan Cullman.

But the Republican leadership's mistake is not its gung-ho rush toward impeachment: The blunder is a transparent power play to hijack any move to censure Mr. Clinton.

What about censure?

Experts uniformly told Mr. Hyde's panel that censure would be the proper, Constitutional punishment for Mr. Clinton, whose sinful deceits were not the official tyranny the Framers feared. Committee Democrats wrote a censure measure to carry Mr. Clinton's apologetic signature. Polls (55 percent, CNN) say this is the public goal.

Won't happen. With Mr. Gingrich abdicating, Speaker-to-be Bob Livingston and Whip Tom DeLay are ferociously determined to squash any censure effort.

Yep, Mr. Gingrich's smart to get out of the way of this impeachment freight train storming through red lights. The wreck won't be pretty.

Sandy Grady is Washington columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News.

Pub Date: 12/14/98

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