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That fateful Gingrich breakfast

I hope i will be pardoned for once more mining the rich store of disclosures in George Stephanopoulos's book - "All Too Human" - about his years at the side of President Clinton.

But it's imperative that I spend some time on the light this book has thrown on a Nov. 15, 1995, Monitor breakfast, in which Speaker Newt Gingrich told a roomful of journalists that because of what he had viewed as rude treatment from the president on a plane trip to Israel he had toughened his stand in the battle over the budget that had closed down government.

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It's worth looking back because one can now see that Mr. Gingrich's display of pettiness that morning marked the end of the Georgian's spectacular career as Speaker. From that moment on, the president was able to portray Gingrich as the villain in the budget standoff, the one who was asking too much, including Medicare cuts, as a condition for keeping the government open.

Gingrich had hoped to discuss the budget standoff on the trip to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's funeral. But along with GOP majority leader Bob Dole, he had been kept in the back of the plane, away from the president.

Gingrich's cry of anguish over this treatment went, in part, like this: "You land at Andrews Air Force Base and you've been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody [meaning the president] has talked to you, and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp."

The next day a New York Daily News cartoon of Gingrich in diapers under the headline, "Cry Baby" was circulated all around Washington power circles.

Thus, began the decline of the Speaker's skyrocketing career. Would he be another Joe Cannon or Sam Rayburn? It once seemed possible.

But why had the president never invited Gingrich and Mr. Dole up to talk to him about the budget on that plane ride? The speculation in the press - and that was all we had to go on - was that Mr. Clinton had preferred to play Hearts with a few of his buddies for endless hours rather than do anything else: He just wanted to have fun.

But Mr. Stephanopoulos tells us that the "snub" of Gingrich and Dole was brought about by the action of four of Clinton's top aides, Leon Panetta, Erskine Bowles, Harold Ickes, and - principally - himself. It was done, he writes, "mostly because of our continuing worry that Clinton would concede too much in a private negotiation with Gingrich or Dole." And here, according to the author, is how it was done:

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"I was appearing at fund-raisers in California that weekend, but I made sure to call Erskine and Harold with the warning that we had to find a way to prevent any budget negotiations on the plane ride. One of Leon's (and others') responsibilities on the trip was to stop any budget talks before they got too serious."

So we now know that the "snub" was planned and orchestrated to protect Clinton against talking too much and thus weakening his position on the budget. But Gingrich's reaction turned the incident into a great (and completely unexpected) presidential budget victory. As Stephanopoulos puts it: "Newt's childish reaction, however, transformed a largely abstract issue into a story everyone could understand; now our plot had a crime (shutdown), a culprit (Newt), and a motive (personal pique)."

Later, in his book "Lessons Learned the Hard Way," Gingrich said his complaint about the plane snub "was the single most avoidable mistake" he made as Speaker. He described himself at that fateful breakfast as "the foolish professor delivering a freewheeling lecture full of careless and unguarded statements.... All because I didn't know when to keep my mouth shut."

And now we have the full story of a plane ride that ended up with Newt out of the speakership, out of Congress, out of Washington. By the way, what is Newt doing these days? He seems to be luxuriating in anonymity.

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