Buddy, Can You Spare...
Why did Dole bail out Gingrich? It took an old cigar box, a back room on the hill and three muses.
By Michael Duffy/Washington
TIME, April 28 -- Bob Dole sounded pretty happy when it was all over, chortling like a kid about keeping a secret, doing a good deed, being "back in the game." It certainly was a stunning way to come out of retirement. By lending Newt Gingrich $300,000 at 10% interest to pay off an ethics-committee fine, Dole had preserved Gingrich's job as House Speaker (at least for now), done his party a favor and maybe even saved a marriage along the way.
The man who never does anything psychologically simple had been scheming about Newt's problems for months. Dole told his old campaign manager Scott Reed in January that Americans would tune out Washington even more completely if both the President and the Speaker were fending off scandal. Newt should pay the fine, said Dole, and get on with it. The two men worked on Gingrich privately for weeks, but the Speaker kept resisting. Marianne Gingrich was even more hostile: she didn't believe her husband had done anything wrong, and she refused to pony up the couple's savings. The Gingriches are worth about $200,000, and most of it is in Marianne's name. A small-town daughter of an insurance salesman, she wasn't about to sign over what she called her security blanket to repay what she regarded as a political debt. By April the Speaker told a friend that if he paid up, Marianne would leave him.
That was the worst of a lot of bad options. The Gingriches could have taken out a bank loan, but there aren't any banks unaffected by legislation before Congress. The couple could have borrowed against another book advance, but then the book contract might look like a bribe. A legal defense fund, paid for by private citizens, was ruled out for an obvious reason: Why remind the public again that the rich protect the powerful?
So Dole let things cool down. Then, two weeks ago, he tried again and sweetened the offer, telling Reed that he would lend Gingrich the money himself. Reed ran the idea past Joe Gaylord, Gingrich's top aide, and this time it wasn't instantly rejected. Gingrich had just returned from China and was on a bit of a roll; plus, as a man who gets inspirations the way other men get coffee, he began hearing from an unlikely trio of political muses. The first was Janet Reno, who, by opting not to name an independent counsel in the fund-raising scandal, gave Newt a better chance to take the moral high ground. The second was his mother, who told him Monday to get on with his life. And then there was golf champion Tiger Woods, who, Gingrich told aides, showed a discipline he wanted to match.
Marianne remained a holdout; by Monday she and her husband could barely discuss the subject. That's when the Speaker asked Washington wise man Ken Duberstein, who had been urging Gingrich to pay the fine for weeks, to lend a hand. Duberstein gently told a sometimes tearful Marianne that her husband would be crushed politically if he didn't pay the debt himself, now or on installment. He said Dole's generous offer gave the Speaker a long time to make the payment--and would buy Gingrich time to consolidate his shaky position in the House. "There's an old adage," Duberstein said later. "'It's better to die tomorrow than to die today.' Marianne came to understand that Newt had to do this."
So did Dole. Buried somewhere in all this is that cigar box--the one all those folks in Kansas filled with nickels after the war to help pay for the last-chance operation that saved Dole's life. As he himself might say, Bob Dole isn't the kind of guy who sits still in an emergency.
And if lending a hand was instinctive, closing the deal was closer to primal. Dole flew to Washington on Tuesday from Harvard, where he'd talked the deal over with--Who else?--former aide Sheila Burke. Following the path he'd taken a million times before, he went over to the Capitol, huddled behind the same ornate doors, took up a chair on a balcony overlooking the Mall. Dole expected criticism; Gingrich need not repay a cent for eight years, and since he's vowed to leave Congress after six, the Speaker will have plenty of time to raise the $643,000 to pay Dole back. There was a pause: by then, someone suggested, Dole might be dead. Right, said Dole, who quickly settled on a beneficiary: "Strom Thurmond." Then Dole signed the papers with Gingrich--the latest in a string of back-room deals that made him the top legislator of his generation.
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