Clinton, Gingrich don kid gloves in forum


CLAREMONT, N.H. -- President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich shook hands on forming a blue-ribbon commission to reform lobbying laws, setting a conciliatory tone at a joint town hall meeting here yesterday.

The appearance outside a senior citizens center in western New Hampshire was surprisingly civil and jovial, with the leaders of the nation's two major political parties on their best behavior. They often nodded when the other spoke, even complimented each other and went out of their way to minimize their differences and refrain from partisan politicking.

"We have a lot of differences," Mr. Clinton said at the start. "But we also have some areas in which we can work together. I think the most important thing we can do is . . . make our best effort, our dead-level best effort, to work together to move this country forward."

Mr. Gingrich noted that the event marked the first time a president and House speaker had held a town hall meeting together.

The Georgia Republican was targeted by one man's shouted protest of funding cuts for the elderly, but otherwise received a warm reception at the end of a four-day swing that looked like a presidential campaign test run through New Hampshire.

Sitting in Windsor chairs before an audience of about 250 senior citizens at a $2-a-ticket, invitation-only chicken barbecue, the two leaders each made brief opening remarks -- both urging more earnest discussion and less inflammatory attacks in politics -- and then answered six questions.

Their one-hour discussion, held under a gray, threatening sky, ranged from Medicare and the minimum wage to the United Nations and Mr. Clinton's national service program. A few good-natured barbs peppered the policy talk.

Both men, who had other scheduled appearances in New Hampshire yesterday and hastily arranged the get-together over the past two days, praised the town hall format and deplored the politics of 30-second sound bites. "Maybe the nation can learn a little bit about working together, not just buying commercials and attacking each other," said Mr. Gingrich.

The first questioner asked if the leaders would consider forming a nonpolitical commission, such as the one that has studied military base closings, to examine reforms on lobbying and special interest influences in government.

"In a heartbeat," Mr. Clinton said, after first misunderstanding the question and launching into a speech on health care reform.

"I accept. Let's shake hands."

The two men spent a large chunk of time discussing their differences on Medicare cuts, of special interest to the audience.

Mr. Gingrich noted that the GOP proposal is not to cut spending, but to slow the rate of spending increases.

Mr. Clinton countered that he thought the Republican measure was "too severe."

To a round of applause from the audience that seemed to be more supportive of the president overall, he said, "Let's cut it as little as possible 'til we know how much we can save."

Mr. Gingrich was decidedly gentle in his criticism of the United Nations, which he has vehemently attacked in the past several days as a "disgrace to civilization."

The House speaker even praised Mr. Clinton's national service program, which he has denounced harshly in the past.

"This is an area where I think the president has a good idea, but we disagree about philosophy of government and about setting priorities," Mr. Gingrich said of AmeriCorps, a program that helps students with college tuition in exchange for public service work. "But it's a very defensible program."

Mr. Clinton, who came to the event after giving a commencement speech at Dartmouth College in Hanover, seemed also to be donning kid gloves, passing over an opportunity to attack the speaker for Congress' delinquency in delivering him a line-item veto bill to sign, for instance.

He did, however, manage two digs at the outspoken, headline-grabbing speaker.

Saying it was difficult for leaders in Washington to get their message out to the country because of the many layers that are hard to break through, he added: "The speaker's real good at that. He can break through like nobody I've seen in a long time."

And when Mr. Gingrich made a reference to one of his soon-to-be-released books, Mr. Clinton poked fun at the speaker's recently released novel that includes steamy language.

"Senator [Bob] Dole hasn't given me permission to read that book yet," Mr. Clinton said, referring to the Senate majority leader's recent attack on sex and violence in movies and rap music.

The meeting, which both camps insisted was not a "debate," had the look and feel -- if not the animus -- of a presidential campaign event, with a high school jazz band playing patriotic songs, and red, white and blue carnations and streamers.

Swarms of people lined the streets, some holding signs such as "Welcome to Newt Hampshire" and "Kick Newt's Butt."

The seniors in the audience said they were impressed with the civility and cordiality of the session, and believed both politicians performed well. But some said they were not fooled by all the sweetness and light.

"It made it seem like Washington isn't as bad as it seems -- which it probably will be when they get back," said retired engineer John Watson, 72, of Windsor, Vt.

New Hampshire's Republican Gov. Stephen Merrill, who attended the event, said he thought it "defined both the president's trip to New Hampshire and the speaker's trip."

The unprecedented session grew out of a half-serious invitation Mr. Clinton made in a conference call with New Hampshire reporters last week. He said it would be nice for both men to talk to the citizens of New Hampshire together. Mr. Gingrich leapt on the suggestion, and the White House found itself unable to get out of it.

White House spokesman Mike McCurry said yesterday that chief of staff Leon E. Panetta led a team of White House and outside advisers -- including George Stephanopoulos and James Carville -- who consulted Friday night and Saturday on whether to go through with the joint event, and then presented their conclusion to Mr. Clinton.

Mr. McCurry said the appearance made sense because in the next few weeks, the president will be more directly engaged with Congress on issues such as welfare reform and the budget and "it will be valuable for the public to see these two respected leaders . . . have different ideas but are able to discuss them in an amicable way."

He admitted that a side benefit for the president was that all the attention on yesterday's town meeting could deflect the spotlight from Mr. Dole, the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.

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