Golden years

Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Speaker Jim Wright have more in common than the office and a couple of embarrassing book deals. They've got a taxpayer-funded, solid-gold retirement plan that could prove to be a public-relations time bomb for the Georgia budget chopper.

Democrats lambasted House Speaker Newt Gingrich last week for his proposed book deal, triggering a rhetorical brawl in the House chambers. Their point, though the Republican majority had it stricken from the House records, was the hypocritically thin skin of "King Newt," who not long ago was a back-bench bomb-thrower himself.

Congressman Gingrich, the Democrats pointed out, led the charge against Speaker Jim Wright for his $12,000 publishing arrangement for his volume Reflections of a Public Man. The controversy over that book, published by a Fort Worth firm which shared half the proceeds with Wright, ultimately forced the long-time Fort Worth congressman's resignation. Differences between the two book deals were gleefully brushed aside as the Democrats skewered the Republican champion, and not incidentally, stopped the clock on passage of the GOP's "Contract with America."

When word got back to Fort Worth that his name was once again heatedly being bandied about the House floor, the 72-year-old Wright issued a statement.

"I know nothing about the transactions between Mr. Gingrich and Rupert Murdoch and therefore have no moral judgement to make regarding their disputed book deal," the former speaker's statement begins. Still, it was obvious that Wright was enjoying seeing Gingrich on the receiving end of some of what the GOP firebrand dished out five years earlier.

Gingrich had engaged in "vicious attacks upon the patriotism and personal character of colleagues and political adversaries," throughout his career, Wright wrote.

Gingrich then delivered a defensive tirade on Friday, branding Wright a "crook."

That prompted Wright to issue yet another press release. "It is not for me to call [Gingrich] ugly names or attribute dishonesty in his business transactions. I guess I'm just not a piglet who likes to wallow in the mud."

But all the name-calling could stop if the past and present speakers recognize that they share an interest in diverting attention from their shared interests.

In these days of budget-shredding jihad, dubious book deals are not the only public relations snafus Wright and Gingrich share. They also have in common a self-interest in the cozy practice of not only giving retired house speakers hefty pensions, but keeping them in comfortable offices--at public expense.

The taxpayers provide Wright, who retired in 1989, an office in a federal building until October 1998. Wright and the other two living former speakers, Tom Foley and Carl Albert, can use the federally funded suites for whatever purposes they deem fit. Wright has used his as a base for writing a weekly newspaper column, preparing speeches at universities, and planning his trips as a U.S. distinguished foreign visitor and an official visitor for various Latin American countries' elections and inaugurations.

Taxpayers are also providing former speakers telephone and mailing privileges, as well as administrative assistants and secretaries. According to the House Finance Office, Wright has one administrative assistant and two secretaries whose salaries total $143,259 a year. Sure, it's not the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, but as the Republican freshmen are fond of saying, you gotta start somewhere.

As the law now stands, Speaker Gingrich will retire into the same bounteous staff and office arrangement for the first five of his twilight years.

At press time, Gingrich--who has pledged to rewrite the laws governing the House, stripping away the high-priced trappings installed by the Democrats, and has attacked unnecessary government spending, even proposing to deny welfare benefits to young unwed mothers--has yet to question the comforts provided for former speakers.

"Yours is the first mention I've ever heard of it," Tony Blankley, Gingrich's press secretary said, when asked if the speaker's retirement package was on his boss' list of fat to cut. Gingrich's office has yet to call back with any further response.

Of course, as even Jim Wright would acknowledge, Gingrich is busy. "It seems unlikely to me that anyone, while speaker, would have time to write a book," Wright said in his release.

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Miriam Rozen
Contact: Miriam Rozen