In his new book, "Lessons I Learned the Hard Way," House Speaker Newt Gingrich cites what he said at a Monitor breakfast as the "single most avoidable mistake I made during my first three years as Speaker."
In his account the speaker writes that all he intended to tell us that morning of Nov. 15, 1995, was this: that the President had missed a wonderful opportunity to talk to Sen. Bob Dole and himself about the mounting budget crisis when they had been together for 25 hours on the plane trip to and from Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral.
Let Newt provide the setting for the breakfast that came a few days after that trip: "We were in the middle of the first of the government shutdowns [Over the budget]. I was trying to explain [to the reporters] how hard it is to do business with the Clinton administration and why, fatefully, we had in the end been prepared to let funding for the government lapse in order to force a confrontation over the balanced budget."
Here Gingrich in his book describes how he admits one of the biggest gaffes in his career came about:
"If he [the president] is genuinely interested in reaching an agreement with us, I said [to the reporters] why didn't he discuss one with us when we were only a few feet away on an airplane? Then I continued, digging my grave a little deeper, if he wanted to indicate his seriousness about working with us, why did he leave the plane by himself and make us go out the back way? I said it was both selfish and self-destructive for the president to hog the media by walking down those steps from the plane alone instead of showing a little bipartisanship precisely when he claimed he wanted to reach an agreement with us. My reaction, I said, was petty but human."
Well, the story that most of the attending reporters wrote was of a speaker who was piqued because President Clinton had never invited Dole and himself up to the front of the plane to discuss the budget and who was insulted because he and Dole had to exit from the back of the plane and not with the president. Gingrich was widely described as "whining," and one paper called him a "crybaby."
Had the press unfairly pounced on Gingrich? In his book the speaker says he understood why the media interpreted his remarks in this way. He said he had been the "foolish professor, delivering a freewheeling lecture full of careless and unguarded statements to a press looking for a sensational angle." He described his press secretary, Tony Blankley, who was nearby, as turning "positively white with horror" as he told his Air Force One story.
One newspaper wrote of Gingrich's reaction to the Clinton plane incident: "So Gingrich, in his rage, drafted two regulations that forced Clinton to bring the federal government to a grinding halt."
The speaker denies there was any connection between the Air Force One incident and the tougher resolutions he sent to the president. Yet at the breakfast Gingrich told us of his reaction to the plane "snub": "That's a part of why you ended up with us sending down a tougher [temporary spending bill]."
Did Newt then "get tough" with Clinton out of anger over a perceived insult? Or was Gingrich really only saying that the solution to the problem might well have been worked out if the three leaders could have talked on the plane?
Was this an instance of a press reaching overly hard for a story? Doubtless that's part of what happened - with some papers.
But Newt writes that he was "sick" over it all - "and my Republican colleagues in the House, who had to sit by in silence as the Democrats had a field day, were even sicker. All because I didn't know when to keep my mouth shut.