WASHINGTON -- When President Clinton opened his joint town meeting with House Speaker Newt Gingrich in Claremont, N.H., by declaring that in 1992 he had "spent some happy days here," you knew the audience was in for a heavy dose of blarney.
Claremont in reality was the site of perhaps Bill Clinton's most distressing day of the 1992 campaign. It was there, at a local paintbrush factory, that he was ambushed by Gennifer Flowers' tell-all account of their relationship in a gossip tabloid. Reporters and cameramen besieged him, sending him into seclusion while his strategists plotted what to do.
Clinton survived that Claremont visit by going before the cameras of "60 Minutes" with wife Hillary and denying the Flowers affair while acknowledging past marital difficulties. He escaped the New Hampshire primary with a respectable second-place finish behind Paul Tsongas and went on from there to the Democratic nomination.
All that is ancient political history now. But Clinton's somewhat disingenuous opening remark at the town meeting with Gingrich was in keeping with the whole tone of the event. These two bitter political rivals made nice in an obvious effort to reduce what are deep and basic disagreements between them to a matter of simply hearing each other out in a spirit of good will. If only politics and ambition worked that way.
Of the two men, it was Gingrich who bent himself more out of his customary shape to accommodate the audience's expressed desire for an end to excessively contentious political dialogue. He is, after all, a self-described "revolutionary" who is more accustomed to go for the jugular than the handshake, and he had not hesitated in the past to paint Clinton as weak and indecisive.
Accommodation, on the other hand, comes more naturally to Clinton, whose penchant for extending olive branches to Republicans who, like Gingrich, are working overtime to make him a one-term president drives Democrats to distraction.
Tactically, Clinton played deftly on a question deploring a Congress that "continues to snip and snipe and . . . play the special interests and partisan politics." He deplored the Washington style of substituting negative sound bites for serious discourse, saying they are the easiest way to "break through" to the voters.
"The speaker is real good at that," he said, smiling. "He can break through like nobody I've seen in a long time."
But Gingrich didn't rise even to that mild bait. Instead, he couched his most basic differences with Clinton, such as his flat opposition to a minimum wage increase and the president's national service program, in terms of a different "philosophy of government." And he went out of his way to emphasize areas of cooperation, to the point that the audience could have wondered what all the harshness they had been hearing all year coming out of Washington was all about.
If it is true that many Democrats believe Clinton is too eager to please and want him to be more of a fighting president, and that many Republicans fear Gingrich is too blunt and aggressive and would like him to cool it a bit, then Gingrich may have done himself more good politically than did Clinton.
But one cordial forum isn't likely to freeze the two men in stylistic stone. The agenda that the Republicans will be shoving at Clinton promises more vetoes and less accommodation on his part. And Gingrich can't be expected to remain in temperamental harness forever. Back in Washington, it's likely to be more of the same old contentiousness, especially on the eve of a presidential election year.
In advance of the Claremont meeting, the conventional Washington wisdom was that the president was foolish to elevate Gingrich by sharing a platform with him. But just as the famous face-to-face meeting between John Kennedy and Richard Nixon in 1960 led Nixon to pull in his claws, this meeting produced a docile Gingrich who seemed most of the time more pussycat than tiger.
Unless he maintains his conciliatory tone in the months ahead, Gingrich's New Hampshire performance may seem in retrospect a phony act. And considering his objective of achieving nothing less than a revolution in the role of government, being Mr. Nice Guy may be next to impossible for him.
For one harmonious hour in Claremont, though, the lovefest was refreshing. Now, in all probability, it will be back to the real world.