WAS it just self-confidence or hubris that led Rep. Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia to accept a $4.5 million book deal from a giant foreign corporation that has pending business before Congress - and just days before he assumes one of the most powerful positions in the United States government?
The next Speaker of the House will be paid to write a book on his political philosophy, ``To a New America,'' and to write a commentary for and help edit a political anthology, ``The Democracy Reader.''
The book payment is far above any ever given to a sitting member of Congress. It may or may not be technically ethical under House rules. That will be decided by the Ethics Committee.
Regardless of what the committee finds, Mr. Gingrich showed poor judgment in making this deal now. Democrats will try hard to make him pay a political price for his financial windfall. It will be up to the American public to decide whether he will.
The book deal is with publisher HarperCollins, one of the companies controlled by media magnate Rupert Murdoch. Another of his businesses, Fox television, would benefit from liberalizing the rules against foreign ownership of TV stations, something Congress is scheduled to consider.
Many conservatives won't be upset by the book deal. Why can't Gingrich be paid ``market value'' for his conservative ideas? they will argue.
But surely Mr. Gingrich knows that appearances count. The appearance of a conflict of interest should have been avoided. By drawing attention to his personal life, the next Speaker looks out-of-synch with the GOP message that Congress should not put itself first and the people second. He endangers the fast start Republicans want for the new Congress.
That's why House Republicans must encourage the next Speaker to take steps to repair the damage. Gingrich should abstain from the process of naming GOP members to the Ethics Committee that will rule on his book deal. And he choose from a number of other options that could restore his credibility. Two possibilities are to give the book money to charity or agree to delay the deal until he's out of office.
Gingrich accrues more power daily. He is centralizing power in the Speaker's office and taking it away from committee chairmen. It may be difficult for GOP members to influence him. But for the sake of the new Congress and its ambitious agenda, we hope they can.