HOUSE SPEAKER NEWT Gingrich is a sweet guy, really, always thinking of others instead of himself.
You don't believe me? There he was this week, worrying about the political welfare of House Democrats.He thoughtfully warned the Democrats that if they dared to defend President Clinton against any allegations of wrongdoing, they might be defeated for re-election this fall. He cited as evidence for this scenario the fact that House Republicans who defended President Nixon during the 1974 Watergate crisis were defeated.
But as a putative historian, Gingrich is awfully careless with his facts. For one thing, Clinton is not Nixon by a long stretch. For another, Gingrich's claimed electoral devastation of hard-core Nixon sup-port-ers is a product of his over-fertile imagination.
Gingrich and other Republicans have tried consistently to elevate Clinton's troubles to a level of venality matching that of Nixon, who was forced to resign to avoid a likely impeachment by the House and trial by the Senate for his Watergate crimes.
The charges against Clinton do not come anywhere close to the constitutional crisis Nixon precipitated by ordering burglaries, placing illegal wiretaps and indulging in other dangerous abuses of power.
Voter reaction reflects that difference. Whereas Clinton remains high in the polls, 66 percent of those surveyed during the 1974 House Judiciary Committee hearings favored Nixon's impeachment.
But Gingrich is determined to keep a phony comparison with Clinton alive.
"Democrats who want to rush in to defend the president should be very cautious," he said in a Reuters interview. He envisioned the prospect that special counsel Kenneth Starr might make his report to Congress on his probe findings in person, as a prelude to a possible impeachment hearing.
"The Republicans who were the most supportive of Richard Nixon were the ones who were the most defeated," Gingrich asserted, ominously.
That would be a scary political precedent indeed, if it happened that way. But it didn't.
Four of Nixon's last-ditch GOP supporters on the House Judiciary Committee - Charles Sandman Jr. and Joseph Maraziti of New Jersey, Wiley Mayne of Iowa and David Dennis of Indiana - were indeed defeated for re-election later that year.
Yet even before the impeachment inquiry began, Mayne, Dennis and Sandman had all been facing serious re-election challenges from strong rivals and were considered highly vulnerable.
But six others, including present Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., were not defeated.
Only after the committee voted for impeachment, with the 10 Republicans opposed, did the White House, acting under court order, release transcripts of three recorded presidential conversations held shortly after the Watergate break-in. The transcripts - full of expletives deleted - exposed Nixon's participation in the coverup and obstruction of justice and finally left his supporters no choice but to abandon him.
Nixon's most eloquent defender on the House Judiciary Committee, Charles Wiggins of California, wept after reading the transcripts and belatedly urged Nixon to resign, otherwise "the magnificent career of public service of Richard Nixon must be terminated involuntarily."
He sailed through re-election although he had originally argued the evidence was insufficient to justify impeachment.
Another survivor was Lott, who had consistently dismissed the charges against Nixon as without "one iota of evidence." He backed down only after listening to the tapes, saying he finally had "no alternative" but to vote against Nixon for obstruction of justice.
The congressional election that year was not kind to Republicans, who lost 36 House incumbents and elected only 17 new members. But it was unclear how much of that was due to an anti-Nixon undertow since Nixon deserters went down alongside Nixon supporters.
President Ford claimed that the basic problem was inflation, which Democrats had managed to blame on the GOP-controlled White House.