It was a flight destined to live in infamy - and certainly no one in Washington was ready to let the matter die Thursday.
With the federal government still closed down and no resolution to the budget showdown in sight, the subject that gripped Capitol Hill and the White House was House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s complaint that he had been treated rudely by President Clinton on a trans-Atlantic trip last week on Air Force One.
Gingrich, seeking to extract himself from a self-ignited firestorm, said Thursday the whole thing was a misunderstanding - he never meant to imply that his budget confrontation with Clinton is motivated in part by personal pique. Never mind the tapes of him saying exactly that on Wednesday morning.
Clinton, meanwhile, gladly assumed a statesmanlike pose: “I can tell you this: If it would get the government open, I’d be glad to tell him I’m sorry.”
If by some chance he had given offense, he certainly was sorry.
“Maybe,” press secretary Michael McCurry chortled from the White House podium, “we could send him some of those little M&Ms; with the presidential seal on them” - the kind dispensed as traveling favors to special guests on Air Force One.
Up went a chorus of guffaws - just one of many Thursday to be had at the speaker’s expense. Congressional Democrats, especially, rushed to exploit politically what they called the speaker’s pettiness in linking a government shutdown to his anger at Clinton for refusing to negotiate over the budget as he and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Ga., crossed the Atlantic with Clinton on the way home from the funeral of slain Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The New York Daily News offered the most vivid image of the uproar on its front page, emblazoned with a drawing of a squalling Gingrich, potbelly and all, dressed in diapers, and holding a bottle. “CRY BABY,” roared the main headline, with a smaller one underneath: “Newt’s tantrum: He closed down the government because Clinton made him sit at the back of the plane.”
Much of the morning in the House of Representives was devoted to a spirited debate over whether it was proper under the rules to carry a giant blow-up of the Daily News to the House floor to illustrate how Gingrich’s comments were being received around the nation. On mostly party lines, the House voted that it was not proper.
That didn’t stop Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., from facietiously telling of a flight he took on Monday, on which he asked for an aisle seat but was given a window seat. “The pilot never came back to say hello. I, as a member of Congress, had to walk out with all the rest of the passengers. So I drafted a bill to shut down governmment until the airline apologizes to me.”
Amidst all the gaiety, it was hard to keep track of just what Gingrich’s original grievance was all about. Both the Speaker and the White House, meanwhile, have substantially revised their stories on this very point.
Gingrich was complaining for several days, even before his breakfast meeting with reporters on Wednesday, that Clinton had squandered a splendid opportunity to negotiate over the looming budget crisis on the 10-hour flight back from Israel.
Confronted with this complaint, the White House responded with wounded indignation. The president was returning from the funeral of a friend, surely no time to talk about budget matters, McCurry said. White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said Clinton was too upset to talk, and “Frankly, it would have been inappropriate.”
In fact, it was entirely reasonable for Gingrich to expect that some budget discussions would occur. On the ground in Israel, McCurry had told reporters that negotiations between Clinton and the congressional leadership would occur on the way back.
At the breakfast on Wednesday, Gingrich broadly expanded his complaint. He said Clinton had given him the cold shoulder for the entire trip, and that his feelings were hurt because he and Dole were made to exit from the rear of the plane, not the front as honored guests usually do. And he said his irritation was part of what made Republicans pass a short-term spending resolution that was so far from what Clinton wanted, ensuring a veto and leading directly to this week’s shutdown.
“I think, by the way, that’s part of why you ended up with us sending down a tougher” budget resolution, Gingrich said Wednesday. “This is petty. I’m going to say up front: It’s petty … but I think it’s human.”
Asked Thursday about why he had left the impression that his pique had caused him toughen the spending bill contributed to the budget confrontation, Gingrich insisted, “There was no such impression.”
Unfortunately for Gingrich, the question of impressions was no longer in his hands. All three major broadcast networks featured Gingrich’s comments prominently in Thursday night’s broadcasts. NBC titled its story on the Clinton-Gingrich feud, “Twin Piques.”
“The press believes that you have to personalize a story to make it come alive,” said media writer Ken Auletta, explaining why the Gingrich flap generated so much news coverage. While the issues over the budget are “very complicated,” he said, the Gingrich tantrum coverage “is a way to humanize a story to make it comprehensible.”
However simplistic, Auletta said, the coverage may underscore an important truth: “Maybe so-called pettiness is just as important as so-called philosophy. Often times it is human factors that influence decisions.”