Debra J. Saunders
As a Republican congressman, Newt Gingrich filed ethics charges that led Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright to resign in 1989. Later, the House elected Gingrich speaker. Then, in 1998, Gingrich resigned after his own close encounter with an ethics probe. Wright said he didn't want to gloat, but he did compare Gingrich to "an arsonist who sets fire to his building without stopping to realize the flames are going to consume his own apartment."

Gingrich truly is, to use one of his favorite phrases, a "transformational figure." He has this unsettling history of morphing into the very thing he once denounced.

Gingrich was right to challenge Wright for skirting ethics rules by peddling copies of his self-published book, "Reflections of a Public Man," to get around a House cap on members' speaking fees.

So what did Gingrich do as he rose up the leadership ladder? Instead of a book, Gingrich developed a college course -- "Renewing American Civilization" -- that later became the title of a book.

Gingrich defenders have argued that unlike Wright's book, the course was not about lining personal pockets. OK. But then Newt's supersize ego led him astray. Course notes extolled the then-GOP whip's role in creating an "American movement" with a GOP majority as an "advocate of civilization," a "definer of civilization," a "teacher of the rules of civilization" and -- prepare to feel a thrill up your leg -- an "arouser of those who form civilization."

House Dems filed ethics complaints charging that the course illegally used tax-exempt entities to promote partisan politics. The Internal Revenue Service later ruled in Gingrich's favor.

But because Gingrich provided "inaccurate, incomplete and unreliable" information to the House Ethics Committee, members voted to fine Gingrich $300,000 (the cost of the investigation).

On its 2012 campaign website, Team Newt dismisses the ethics charges as "politically motivated." The misleading documents were "prepared by Newt's lawyer."

That handy explanation goes to the recklessness that makes the prospect of a Gingrich nomination so scary. Gingrich knew that Democrats were gunning for him; in his lust for self-aggrandizement, he handed his opponents ample ammunition.

The new John Adams couldn't just teach a regular course on American history. No, he had to involve his political arm, GOPAC, and other elements of "Newt Inc." The course burned through as much as $450,000 in 1994 and again in 1995. While under investigation, Gingrich signed documents that weren't true.

Debra J. Saunders

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