Peas in a Pod


Washington -- They could be brothers. They could be twins. The similarities between Newt Gingrich and Bill Clinton are at least as intriguing as their differences. Think about it.

VTC Born in the 1940s, they are the first of their generation to hold their respective jobs. Both became the men of their households at very early ages. Both were raised by strong mothers and, later, by their mothers' second husbands, whose names they took. (Mr. Clinton began life as William Blythe, Mr. Gingrich as Newton McPherson.)

Both consider themselves Southern, although "Newtie," as his mother "whispered" to CBS' Connie Chung, was born in Pennsylvania, "a Yankee."

Both used to drive '67 Mustangs.

Mr. Clinton dreamed of being president when he was a youth and shook hands with President John F. Kennedy as a teen. Mr. Gingrich says he dreamed, at age 15, of being speaker of the House. Imagine what fun they must have been on dates.

It is comical to hear either man characterize the other as "outside the mainstream." Both seem well within. Mr. Gingrich offered a "Contract With America." Mr. Clinton whipped up a "Middle Class Bill of Rights." Better late than never.

Newt said he thinks Franklin D. Roosevelt "may be the greatest president" of this century. Bill thinks so, too.

Bill tells black audiences that he thinks Martin Luther King Jr., would be appalled at the high rate of black-on-black violence. So does Newt.

The president wants welfare recipients to go to work after two years. So does the speaker. The difference: The former would use carrots, the latter sticks.

Mr. Clinton leans toward luring teen-age welfare mothers into jobs or job-training programs with safety nets to help them make the transition. Mr. Gingrich leans toward cutting off the welfare and putting those children who could not be well cared for into orphanages.

Mr. Clinton talked during his campaign about wiring every neighborhood with the "electronic superhighway" and reinventing government. Mr. Gingrich talks about free laptops for poor kids and dismantling government.

Mr. Gingrich talks like Rush Limbaugh, whom Garrison Keillor recently called "the voice of male menopause," but his ideas sound like Jack Kemp's -- a kinder, gentler conservatism that talks about dismantling government, yet waxes wistfully at appropriate moments about the great things government should doing. Bobby Kennedy would be pleased.

Newt approaches these problems from the right, Bill from the left. Mr. Clinton calls himself a "New Democrat." Mr. Gingrich calls himself a "conservative futurist."

They're both policy wonks, in love with ideas and the pursuit of solutions in a capital that is in love with itself and the pursuit of raw power.

Both began their jobs with great fanfare amid much talk of new winds of change blowing into the nation's capital. Since then, President Clinton's approval ratings have fallen through the floor. Yet, guess what? So have Newt's.

A Newsweek survey taken late last week found Mr. Clinton, with 46 percent, actually beating Mr. Gingrich, who got only 31 percent support, in a head-to-head "test election" for the White House.

The most significant difference between the two men is in their core beliefs. Mr. Gingrich's are carefully crafted, but predictably rock solid. Mr. Clinton's are hard to detect and harder to predict. Mr. Gingrich uses language to persuade others to his view. Mr. Clinton uses language to bring various views to the table and fashion compromise.

So far, the speaker's strong voice has made Mr. Clinton sound more like an echo than a choice.

Next week's state-of-the-union address offers the president a chance to come back and offer Americans a reassuring check on possible Republican excesses.

It will not be easy for Mr. Clinton to distance himself from Mr. Gingrich -- they have so much in common.

Yet, he must.

8, Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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