On the campaign trail, Newt Gingrich is fond of waxing nostalgic about his days as House speaker working out the nation's problems across the table from Democratic President Bill Clinton. Although some of us scribe types who were on duty in the mid-1990s remember the relationship as somewhat less harmonious and bipartisan, no matter. The candidate seems intent on drawing on events of the Clinton era to shape his world view as a presidential candidate in 2012, so it makes sense to explore yet another fitting Clinton analogy Gingrich offered up today.
In New Hampshire, where the next primary takes place on Tuesday, Gingrich faced some tough questions from reporters about his eight-year association with mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which produced more than $1.6 million in income for Gingrich for what he has described as consulting services after he left Congress in 1999. A reporter pointed out that Freddie Mac officials have now said that it's fine with them if Gingrich releases details of the contractual arrangement, and asked the candidate when he planned to do so.
Gingrich explained that although he personally is OK with releasing the documents, he no longer has any control over the entity with custody of them, the Center for Health Transformation. Gingrich created and owned the center until he started running for president, at which time he turned over management to an underling, Nancy Desmond, his former chief of staff when he was a congressman from the 6th District of Georgia from 1995 to 1999. Gingrich told the media scrum that Desmond is now president of the group, and would have to make any decisions about releasing documents. Then, a reporter followed up with this:
Q: But it was your company.
Gingrich: "It was, yes, just as Bain (Capital) was Romney's company. There's a was and there's an is."
Q: So it's only the current leadership that can make the decision.
A: "Right. They have legal control, I don't."
So, like Clinton in his heyday, Gingrich would have us contemplate the true meaning of the word "is." In response to a question in front of a grand jury about why he wasn't lying to his top aides when he denied having a sexual dalliance with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, Clinton in 1998 famously said, "It depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is. He went on to say:
"If the -- if he -- if 'is' means is and never has been, that is not -- that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement. ... Now, if someone had asked me on that day, are you having any kind of sexual relations with Ms. Lewinsky, that is, asked me a question in the present tense, I would have said no. And it would have been completely true."
As Salon wrote at the time, "The distinction between 'is' and 'was' was seized on by the commentariat when Clinton told Jim Lehrer of PBS right after the Lewinsky story broke, 'There is no improper relationship.' Salon further suggested that such intellectual calisthenics might well earn Clinton the nickname, "Existential Willie."