Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is back in the news, this time with predictions and observations on Clinton's legacy and the 2000 race, and a breathtaking ignorance of Roman history. Gingrich has missed a lesson that the Founders learned well and tried to prevent when they wrote the U.S. Constitution.
Gingrich told NBC's "Today" show that President Clinton should not be indicted after he leaves office.
"No. We don't want to go down the path that destroyed the Roman republic," he said in a taped interviewed Tuesday. "I can't imagine how it would help America to get in the habit of indicting former politicians," he added.
Here is an example of Gingrich the history professor getting his history all wrong. The Roman republic did not fall because former politicians were indicted after leaving office. It fell because former politicians began to operate above and beyond the law.
What Gingrich wants is what the Clinton allies want: Clinton to skirt legal punishment just as he escaped political punishment. The Senate dismissed his perjury, obstruction of justice, and abuse of power with a wave of the hand.
But as long as the Independent Counsel's office remains on the case, Clinton could still face the same kind of prosecution as any other citizen accused of lying under oath, tampering with witnesses, suborning perjury, and abusing public resources and offices to keep himself in power.
The lesson of Roman history is that letting the ambitious go unpunished invites even bolder, more dangerous action. So, it is important for the independent counsel to vindicate the rule of law.
The Roman republic fell because of a combination of the cult of personality and the corruption of the Senate that allowed the ambitious to rise to unequaled power.
By exploiting the resentments and envy of the mob, the boldest and most unscrupulous politicians and demagogues, such as Gaius Marius, Lucius Sulla, Caesar, Pompey, Crassus, and Marc Antony, were able to turn their popularity into political power and bloody vengeance.
Like the worship of poll ratings today, popularity lent a cloak of invincibility to the most unlawful abuses of power. The civil war that ended in the reign of the Caesars pitted the power and privilege of the Senate against politicians who tried to operate above the law.
Events were set in motion when the Senate opposed the reforms of the Gracchi — two brothers who sought a distribution of public lands to the Roman poor to balance the welfare system managed by the Senate's monopoly of power. When the Gracchi began to appeal directly to the people and to resort to extra-legal maneuvering, senatorial cunning led to their deaths.
This opened the door for General Gaius Marius who used bribery and the spoils of victory to corrupt an army made up of the discontented poor. With the support of the mob and the legions, he was then able to work outside the law.
Looking back at history, the Senate failed on two counts. It failed to reform its centralized government and special-interest oriented politics; and to effectively oppose Marius's lawlessness. Working from Marius's example, his subordinate Sulla then rose to his own command and marched on Rome.
But the republic didn't collapse until the most brazen of all Romans, Julius Caesar, made an open bid for total power based on appeals to the mob and the support of his army.
By then, it was too late for the Senate and the people of Rome.
It is a measure of Gingrich's limited political understanding of the world that he would fail to see the justice in prosecuting the nation's highest ranking official as an example that no one is above the law.
Gingrich isn't just ignorant of Roman history; he stands in direct opposition to the ideals of the American Revolution. It was the Founders' hope that no matter how powerful, every man would be subject to the rule of law.
So strongly did they believe in this, they established impeachment as an additional means to ending the political careers of the corrupt — especially those who might be able to skirt the legal letter of the law (presumably in those cases where prosecution depends on what the definition of "is" is).
To fail to prosecute political wrongdoers, the Founders believed, was to beg disaster. "Caesar profited by the failure of Marius in the art of enslaving his country," John Taylor explained, warning that no nation will ever profit by "the failure of another in the art of preserving its liberty."
John Adams wrote that the "spirit of liberty" must always "resist the beginnings of tyranny" because "her enemies are secret and cunning, making the earliest advances slowly, silently, and softly."
The Founders believed that the loss of liberty was the inevitable result of the illegitimate use of power. Early abuses become the precedent for brazen action and greater encroachments.
The classics-educated Founders wouldn't just view Gingrich's arguments as historically inaccurate. They would see the failure to punish a high official for wrongdoing as an invitation to further malfeasance from office holders who believe they are above the law, as long as their poll ratings are high and the people are asleep dreaming of the Dow Jones Industrial Average.