Newt Gingrich is still hunting that giraffe.
Three hours each week, the smug Speaker of the House pops up on Knowledge TV--the former Mind Extension University on cable--touting his own peculiar view of history in what is surely the country's most tedious infomercial (no miracle car wax, no hair extensions, just endless minutes of Gingrich droning on about how men are genetically coded to hunt giraffes and women are unfit for life in foxholes because they catch monthly "infections"). The show must go on, no matter what's contained in the report on Gingrich's activities due any day from the House Ethics Committee, no matter how loud the cries get for Gingrich to step aside as Speaker. (The final vote is slated for January 7.)
And Colorado made it all possible.
Not just because Glenn Jones, the poetry-writing mogul who founded Englewood-based Jones Intercable, cut a deal with Gingrich in January 1995 to air the newly elevated Speaker's Renewing American Civilization lectures on his televised Mind Extension University--for free. (That Jones had business before Congress--massive new telecommunications regulations, for starters--inspired another Coloradan to call for an investigation. "It doesn't meet the straight-face test," said then-representative Pat Schroeder. The ethics committee dismissed that complaint, presumably with a straight face, in December 1995--but Schroeder may yet have the last laugh.)
Jones continues to air the Gingrich lecture series, taped two years ago at Georgia's Reinhardt College before a class only occasionally caught napping. "Why has Newt Gingrich's video course created such an uproar around the world?" asks a current commercial peddling the complete twenty hours of lectures outlining history from Gingrich's "unique perspective"; Gingrich's class notes and outlines; a year's subscription to Renewing American Civilization, "America's most patriotic newspaper, a newspaper of progress and freedom"; and copies of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. All for the low, low price of just three payments of $79.95--a pittance to pay to find out "why this series is so controversial."
But don't get out your wallet--there's nothing in any of those materials that begins to explain the controversy now ensnaring the Speaker. (Except, perhaps, the Constitution.)
To untangle the current mess, you need to trace another Colorado connection, one that helped make Gingrich's TV career--not to mention his rise to the top of Congress--possible in the first place. You need to follow the money back to an obscure foundation started in this state in 1984: the Abraham Lincoln Opportunity Foundation, which ultimately--and probably illegally--poured $200,000 into Gingrich's show.
And ALOF did so with the Speaker's approval. That's the word from Howard "Bo" Callaway, founder of Crested Butte, failed Colorado gubernatorial candidate and former director of ALOF. "Newt certainly approved it," he told a Boston Globe reporter in late November. "I can't absolve him of all responsibility."
When he helped found ALOF twelve years ago, Callaway was chairman of the state Republican Party; its board included numerous other top Colorado GOPs, including the party's executive director, Kay Riddle. ALOF came complete with a noble list of goals, a list that earned it nonprofit status: "to conduct annual Land of Opportunity speech contests throughout the secondary schools of Colorado, to lend care and assistance to the needy and to provide educational services to the public."
ALOF struck out on all three. No one in this state remembers any speech contest that the foundation sponsored, or any services it provided the needy. Unless, of course, you consider Newt needy. Because ALOF's third goal, "to provide educational services," offered Gingrich entrance into his own Land of Opportunity.
Soon after Callaway founded ALOF, he became general chairman of GOPAC, the Republican political action committee that Gingrich, then a Georgia congressman, chaired; Riddle served as GOPAC's executive director for six years. By 1990, on her watch, Gingrich was using GOPAC to produce a cable project called American Citizen's Television, which was designed to recruit a new generation of citizen activists. Republican activists. But the program was pricey, and soon Gingrich was looking for additional sources of funding.
Enter the ever-helpful Callaway. Creating a new nonprofit that could accept tax-deductible donations (which a PAC cannot) might have taken too long, and he instead suggested that the moribund ALOF be revived to support the TV project. Gingrich approved, Callaway now says, but only after GOPAC lawyer Daniel Sillinger gave his okay to the plan.
Sillinger cannot be reached for comment--he died last year. "I know it cuts a lot out from what I say," Callaway told the Globe. "'Where is your witness? You don't have one.' I hate that."
Callaway says Sillinger based his opinion on the fact that Gingrich's TV projects were not political but instead fell within ALOF's mission of providing "educational services."
Yes, and I'm dancing in the Nutcracker with Chelsea Clinton.
Today Gingrich is doing a little dance of his own, trying to deny that ACTV, the forerunner of Renewing American Civilization, had any political purpose. But on that issue, there is a witness: Gingrich himself.
"I am excited about the progress of the American Citizen's Television," Gingrich wrote in a 1990 letter to a donor. "We are making great strides in continuing to recruit activists all across America to become involved with the Republican Party."
After ALOF was resurrected (and much of its board replaced with Gingrich cronies, although Riddle and Callaway stayed on), the foundation and GOPAC shared offices, phones and a lawyer--Sillinger. On its tax returns, however, ALOF denied any connection with GOPAC or any other political organization. Between 1900 and 1993, ALOF funneled at least $200,000 into ACTV; $45,000 of that came from GOPAC itself.
Westword reported that in December 1995, a year before the current controversy erupted. At the time, when asked about the money transfer from GOPAC to ALOF, Riddle asked, "Why do you care?" and then hung up on the reporter.
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Today the list of people who care has grown substantially. Minority Whip David Bonior, who filed an ethics complaint against Gingrich last January, has labeled ALOF a "phony charity." James Cole, the ethics committee's special counsel, is still investigating whether Gingrich broke the law by using a nonprofit organization for political gain. In addition to ALOF, Cole is also looking at the Progress and Freedom Foundation.
That's the outfit listed at the end of each Renewing American Civilization episode as holding the copyright on the show.
"It's not who you are today, it's who you want to be tomorrow that counts in America," Gingrich tells his class during his "entrepreneuring" lecture, which reran Monday.
Sometimes you get the giraffe. And sometimes the giraffe gets you.