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Passing The Hat For Newt

By Calvin Trillin

TIME magazine

(TIME, April 21) -- This is the time of year when we all feel a bit strapped for cash. So you can understand my lack of enthusiasm when a reporter I'll call Jeffrey showed up at my office to suggest that if Newt Gingrich can't think of any other way to pay his $300,000 penalty to the House Ethics Committee, maybe members of the press ought to take up a collection.

"You kind of caught me at a bad time, Jeffrey," I said. "I just sent the IRS a check as my contribution toward one of those fancy new F-22 jet fighters that's going to keep us technologically way ahead of potential enemies like Iraq and Afghanistan, at least until we start selling them to Iraq and Afghanistan."

"I'm talking enlightened self-interest here," Jeffrey told me. "This guy's great copy, even when he goes to China to hide out. We can't afford to let him go back to Georgia. Think of what would have happened if we really hadn't had Nixon to kick around anymore after his defeat in California in 1962. Think of the book advances lost. Think of the depleted lecture fees."

Jeffrey had a point there. Nixon is still generating copy, three years after his death. For the press, the gradual release of the Oval Office tapes has been like a small but steady trust fund. Still, I had taken the sort of hit from the IRS that made me understand why Steve Forbes was so eager for a system that would make income from his trust fund tax free.

"Actually," I said to Jeffrey, "I was thinking maybe the Democrats would figure out a way to get that fine paid, just so they could have Newt there for 'You're one too' purposes. They seem to be good at shifting around money in a quiet way."

"It's going to be up to us," Jeffrey insisted. "This is a man who said Susan Smith drowned her children because the Democrats had been in power too long. This is a man who said beach volleyball is what freedom is all about. Dick Armey or Tom DeLay just can't come up with stuff that juicy."

"Well, DeLay did enliven the debate in the House last week by shoving David Obey, simply because Obey produced a newspaper story about DeLay inviting lobbyists into his office to write legislation," I said. "Maybe if he got elected Speaker of the House, he'd learn karate."

"A one-day story," Jeffrey said. "Compare that with Newt completely blowing the public-opinion battle over the government shutdown because he couldn't keep from whining about having to get off Air Force One by the back door. We need this man. We figure the only fair way to divide up the tab is to assess all press people according to how much they've written about him."

"Jeffrey, this just happens to be a bad April 15th for me," I said. "I'm beginning to believe those stories that some rich people are planning to hurry up and die if the Republicans repeal the inheritance tax, just to get in under the wire in case the Democrats win Congress next time and put it back in."

"We've got you down for seven columns, 41 assorted mentions and six cheap shots," Jeffrey said, withdrawing a small pledge card from his pocket. "Does that sound right?"

"Listen, Jeffrey," I said, "I really don't see anything wrong with Gingrich paying that fine out of campaign funds. In fact, I intend to write a column to that effect."

Jeffrey got out a stub of a pencil and made a correction on the pledge card. "That makes eight," he said.

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