House Speaker Newt Gingrich was showered with applause and cheers Saturday as he denounced an ethical double standard for conservatives. But he acknowledged he made mistakes.
To a 17-year-old constituent who told him that young people aren't voting because they don't trust politicians, Gingrich replied: "I don't think you should trust politicians. I think you should elect them and watch them.""When you are of legal age," Gingrich told community college student Rachel Gassaway, "if there is no one worthy of your vote, run for office."
Gingrich was reprimanded by the House on Tuesday and ordered to pay a $300,000 penalty. The Georgia Republican admitted last month he violated House ethics rules by failing to "seek and follow" legal advice that would have warned him not to use tax-exempt projects to further potentially partisan goals.
"If at some point in your life you make a mistake, saying up front you made a mistake is the only honorable thing you can do," Gingrich told supporters at one of a series of town hall meetings this weekend.
But he complained that there appears to be one ethical standard for liberals and another for conservatives.
"Somehow, if you're on the left you can co-mingle everything, and no one seems to notice," Gingrich said. "If you are a conservative, and you hire a lawyer, and you make a mistake, you had better prepare to be pilloried."
Despite his complaints of a double standard, Gingrich established the concept that the House speaker must be held to a "higher standard" than other members. He used that phrase in leading the effort to unseat former Rep. Jim Wright, D-Texas, the only other speaker formally charged with ethical failings. In 1989, Wright resigned the speakership and his House seat under pressure.
Gingrich first refused to talk about his ethics case Saturday but defended himself after constituents peppered him with questions.
He said his violations were unintentional.
"I looked at a document, I didn't read it carefully enough, and I shouldn't have signed it," he said.
His town meetings were filled with supporters who heckled and booed some questioners, including one who asked him to explain why he shouldn't resign.