LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Now for a quick history lesson. Even as Republican presidential frontrunner Newt Gingrich is riding high in the polls this week, he's being dragged back into a debate over a problematic part of his past. In 1997, he was the first ever speaker of the House to be punished by the House for ethics violations. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, the scandal unfolded with politics in a classroom.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: From the school of business at Kennesaw State College, in Kennesaw Georgia, this is Renewing American Civilization.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: With Renewing American Civilization, history professor turned politician Newt Gingrich had a college course, a program that was supposed to be insulated from partisan politics and campaign cash. The litany he used in the classroom sounds much like one he uses today.
NEWT GINGRICH: American civilization cannot survive with 12-year-olds having babies, 15-year-olds shooting on another, 17-year-olds dying of AIDS, and 18-year-olds graduating with diplomas they cannot read.
OVERBY: But then as now, Gingrich had several overlapping projects going on. And Democrats alleged that Gingrich used the college course to promote a political agenda. Here's one example: A restaurant industry advocacy group gave Gingrich's college course $25,000. Soliciting the money, one of Gingrich's political fundraisers, who said in a memo that the group might contribute if Gingrich would teach ideas that it favored. Chairman of the group was chain-restaurant owner Norman Brinker.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Whether it's his beloved game of polo or his magical success in business, Norman Brinker simply does not know how to lose. Since he began running the Chili's restaurant chain in 1983...
OVERBY: And that's Brinker in a video used by Gingrich in his course to talk about business innovation. For nearly two years, the House Ethics Committee investigated this and other Democratic allegations. In the end, the House voted overwhelmingly, 395 to 28, to give Gingrich a reprimand and to fine him $300,000. Here's Republican Nancy Johnson, who chaired the ethics committee, speaking on the House floor.
REPRESENTATIVE NANCY JOHNSON: Today, we conclude this case by imposing a heavy penalty on the leader of this House. It is a tough penalty, unprecedented, and appropriate.
OVERBY: The original charges had fallen by the wayside. Gingrich admitted that he had unintentionally but materially misled the committee and had failed to keep the college course insulated from partisan politics. But that's not at all the stance he takes now. Talking about the case yesterday at the Republican Jewish Coalition, he said he should have fought back harder against the Democratic ethics assault.
GINGRICH: The attrition effect on your members of that many ads and that many charges has gradually wore down people, and I gradually lost the ability to lead because, you know, I was ultimately so battered by the process.
OVERBY: Now, there's an irony to this because Gingrich's ethics case isn't really the beginning of the story. Back in 1988, as a minority party back bencher, Gingrich filed ethics charges against Democratic House Speaker Jim Wright. His muscular rhetoric will sound familiar.
GINGRICH: Having Jim Wright third in line to be president, and having the power of the speakership in Jim Wright's hands is very, very dangerous to the processes we're used to in this country.
OVERBY: Just as in Gingrich's own case, the original allegations didn't stick against Wright. But the Ethics Committee found other problems. Not like Gingrich, Wright chose to resign before the committee reached a final verdict.
LARRY EVANS: And that really, for the first time, kind of politicized the ethics process.
OVERBY: This is Larry Evans, a government professor at the College of William and Mary in Virginia. He's chronicled the Republican rise to power. And he says Gingrich's takedown of Wright was a turning point in promoting the acid partisanship that afflicts Capitol Hill.
EVANS: Part of the edge of the polarization at the leadership level in the '90s was because of Gingrich, and the tactics that he used back in the late 1980s.
OVERBY: And by now, these tactics are an everyday part of the House of Representatives.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.