How to Make History Fib for You

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Jan. 28 2012 11:41 AM

How to Make History Fib for You

CELEBRATION, Fla. -- If you stop Superman around 20 minutes before the ending, Lois Lane dies. (By the way: Spoiler.) If you end a biography of Newt Gingrich in 1997, he's been found guilty of ethics violations after a two-year House investigation. And so the new Mitt Romney ad is a clip from a January 1997 NBC News broadcast, Tom Brokaw grimly announcing the shaming of Newt.

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We might focus on why Brokaw is the face of the ad, and not whoever the nascent Fox News had at the time (I really have no idea. Pat Boone?), but how about we focus on the timing? Grab a clip from two years later, after Gingrich had left the House, and you learn that he was exonerated.

The Romney campaign has maintained a useful but pointless fiction: Gingrich resigned in disgrace after his ethics were questioned. But that wasn't why he resigned. In 1998, he took a bullet for the GOP conference when then they lost seats, after he'd sworn up and down that a campaign against Bill Clinton's sex scandal would leave Democrats' bodies lying on blood-clogged gutters. ("At every level that matters," he told Dan Balz, "we will sweep.") The losses built up confidence among Republicans who already wanted Gingrich gone, and had tried to oust him in 1997. According to Rep. Dan Burton, still a Gingrich ally, the speaker had 198 committed votes for re-election when he needed 218. So he quit. The ethics story didn't bother them as much as Gingrich's compromises with Clinton or perceived insults of conservatives did.

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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