President Clinton met House Speaker Newt Gingrich in an extraordinary hour of public debate here yesterday. Politely, but distinctly, the two champions of their parties staged a miniature version of the historic argument about the role of government that is now under way in Washington.
Clinton and Gingrich opened their discussion - in a town meeting format at a senior center here - with a handshake and a vow to work together and establish a blue-ribbon commission to write legislation to restrain lobbyists and their gifts to members of Congress, and to bring about campaign reform.
“You want to do it on lobby reform? In a heartbeat. I accept,” Clinton said.
Said Gingrich: “Let’s shake hands right here in front of everybody.”
The pair then discussed their different views on Medicare, Bosnia, welfare, immigration, the balanced budget, the minimum wage and taxes. The meeting took place in this town of 13,000 in west-central New Hampshire, in the back yard of the red-shingled Earl Bourdon Senior Center, where about 300 seniors gathered at picnic tables on a cool, cloudy afternoon.
“It wasn’t a contest; it was a conversation,” Clinton said afterward. “I loved it.”
Though the two men promised to cooperate, and the president appeared to move a little closer to Gingrich’s position on the necessity of trimming rising Medicare costs, they differed on the size and scope of any cutbacks in the popular medical insurance program for the elderly. “The mission can’t just be to save money … but to do it in a way that doesn’t force retirees without the means to do it to shoulder much bigger increases for their own health care,” Clinton said.
“We can’t pretend that just because we’re at a senior center that there will be no changes. … Let’s cut it as little as possible until we know how much we can save,” he said, rather than “lock ourself” into a GOP tax cut.
Gingrich said he hoped to work with Clinton on Medicare this summer and argued the GOP plan for a balanced budget “takes current spending of $4,800 per year and moves it up to $6,400 per citizen - a $1,600 or 33 percent increase. That is less than the current projections, but it is an increase.”
Clinton noted, however, that the GOP increase averaged about 4 percent a year, which matches today’s increases but may not be enough for a rapidly aging population that lives longer because of better and more expensive medical procedures.
As a matter of style, the event marked a reversal of roles. Gingrich was restrained and markedly solicitous in his attempt to be statesmanlike, apparently content at the way in which the joint appearance crowned his rise to the top of the Republican hierarchy this year.
It was Clinton who came armed with barbs, teasing both Gingrich and the absent Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas about the speaker’s racy novel and Dole’s recent call for an end to prurient entertainment.
When Gingrich mentioned his extracurricular writing, the president broke in and, referring to the novel, said, “Sen. Dole hasn’t given me permission to read that book yet.”
Gingrich seemed sharply critical of the president just once, when the discussion turned to the role of the United Nations and the current civil war in Bosnia.
“The UN’s current system of command and control is a nightmare. … The president knows this because he gets briefed on it,” Gingrich said. “You don’t send in the military to be hostages; you send in the military to rescue hostages.”
Clinton rather meekly responded that “130,000 people died in Bosnia, civilians, in 1992, and under 3,000 died there last year. … Sometimes as bad and as ragged as it is, the U.N. is better than nothing.”
Gingrich’s aides had worried beforehand about appearing before a crowd of senior citizens when the Republicans are trying to pare hundreds of millions of dollars in savings from the Medicare program.
As the politicians took their places, it looked as if the Gingrich team’s fear was justified: The audience was equipped with hand-held cardboard fans, on which was written: “I’m a fan of National Health Care.”
But as they took their seats on a small stage, the two gray-haired party leaders complained about today’s vicious brand of politics, the cynical press and the polarizing effects of 30-second commercials.
On more than one occasion, Gingrich said he learned over the last six months about the need to tone down partisan rhetoric and to consider the interests of all Americans.
Clinton at first sounded sympathetic, saying, “Shoot, if all I knew about me was what I saw in the evening news, I wouldn’t be for me half the time, either,” but then he ribbed Gingrich for his sometimes acid tongue.
“It is so difficult for us in Washington to communicate with people out in the country,” Clinton said. “Often the only way to break through is with some fairly extreme statement.
“The speaker is pretty good at that. He can break through like nobody I’ve seen in a long time,” the president said.
Gingrich bashfully acknowledged, in a tone that typified his manner yesterday: “He’s right, I get too hot sometimes.”
Spokesmen for Clinton and Gingrich began spinning in stereo as soon as the town meeting concluded. “We both agree it was a wonderful occasion,” said Michael McCurry, Clinton’s spokesman. “It’s a win for both men,” said Tony Blankley, Gingrich’s spokesman. “They weren’t fighting each other; they were laying out their thoughts.”