What's with Newt Gingrich and Freddie Mac?

Anybody who watched the CNBC debate last Wednesday had to notice that Newt Gingrich’s ordinarily imperturbable calm was disturbed a bit by an unexpected question about his connection to Freddie Mac, the federal mortgage lender. After his expression flickered, Gingrich gave a rosy-sounding account of his advisory role with the enterprise. He was paid $300,000 for his expert advice, which Gingrich made sound amounted to, “Abolish yourselves.”

But a Bloomberg TV segment tells a different story. According to the report, former Freddie officials say that, if Gingrich did have concerns about the company, he didn’t share them with the CEO. Instead, they say, the former Speaker of the House was asked to serve as an apologist for Freddie’s public-private structure to the very conservatives who — like Gingrich today — already wanted to abandon the enterprise. Gingrich maintains his contract forbid any kind of express lobbying — but, as the reporter on the story says in the video, Gingrich wouldn’t be the first strategic adviser to “brush up against the lobbying line.”

This matters less for whatever Gingrich actually did for Freddie Mac (if he was supposed to improve Freddie’s image with conservatives, he definitely didn’t succeed) than for what it might say about his forthrightness when confronted with a tricky question.

It’s difficult for any politician to admit they’re not prescient: No doubt Gingrich really does remember his role at Freddie as he relayed it. Who wouldn’t want to think they had foreseen the housing bubble and sought to prevent it? But it would have been better and more reassuring — if the Bloomberg report is true — if Gingrich had acknowledged openly that he did see a role for Freddie and was a fan of the public-private structure, even though, as an intelligent individual, he could also sense the imprudence of granting irresponsible loans.

Gingrich, for all his good points, has argued for a more extensive role for the federal government in the past than he does presently. It’s in his best interest to own that — and to emphasize his present positions as positions that evolved thoughtfully from his past experience and present involvement with the grassroots. He better especially nail his strategy now, as, with his rise in the polls, he’s bound to face increased media scrutiny in the coming weeks.