Capital Culture: Candor rare in Oval Office talks

By Nancy Benac

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 30 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

WASHINGTON — When presidents sit down in private with congressional leaders, particularly those from the opposing party, there's often a heaping helping of bland talk about working together — spiced with the occasional red hot chili pepper.

There's no telling when those rare moments of candor may occur. Or when the public will get the full story of what went on behind closed doors.

—Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, during a 1996 government shutdown caused by a budget stalemate, admitted in a White House meeting with President Bill Clinton and fellow congressional leaders that he'd blown it. "We made a mistake," he said, according to Clinton's memoir. "We thought you would cave." Unsurprisingly, that's nothing like what he said in public.

—Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, during a White House meeting the day after the 9-11 terror attacks in 2001, advised President George W. Bush not to use the word "war" — a suggestion that Bush had no intention of adopting. That didn't come out until a few weeks ago, in Bush's new memoir.

—President Jimmy Carter in 1979 told congressional Democrats over breakfast that if Sen. Ted Kennedy challenged him for the presidency, "I'll whip his ass." That leaked out immediately and provided a big morale boost to White House staff members, as Carter recalls in his recently published diary.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama invited in congressional leaders from both parties as part of his effort to build a new working relationship after midterm elections that handed control of the House to the Republicans and pared down the Democratic majority in the Senate.

The guests included eight legislators: the top two Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Add to that group the vice president, treasurer and budget director, and it was a lot of people to have their say. The meeting, scheduled for an hour, ran more than two.

Afterward, Obama acknowledged that these types of meeting too often are more political theater than substance.

"Both sides come to the table, they read their talking points, then they head out to the microphones to try to win the news cycle instead of solving problems, and it becomes just another move in an old Washington game," the president said. "I think there was a recognition today that that's a game that we can't afford, not in these times."

In fact, Obama and the Republicans did head for dueling microphones when the meeting ended.

But both sides expressed hope the meeting would produce positive results.

Obama called it a "good start."

House Republican leader John Boehner — soon to be House speaker — called it "a very nice meeting."

"Of course, we've had a lot of very nice meetings," Boehner added. "The question is can we find the common ground the American people expect us to find."

While Obama has met with all these congressional leaders in the past, it's clear he still has work to do in creating a good working relationship with the Republicans, especially after the rancor of the midterm elections and now that the GOP wields more power.

Boehner, an Ohio Republican, for example, said during the campaign that he feels no connection to Obama.

"When I talk about the real world, it doesn't seem to register" with Obama, Boehner complained in one television interview.

Former presidential spokesman Ari Fleischer, who sat in on plenty of meetings between Bush and congressional leaders, says that typically the more participants involved, the less of importance that gets done.

Put the president in a room with 10 or 12 congressional leaders, Fleischer says, and "it's often a series of speeches and very little interaction."

"If you really want to trade ideas and start to figure out the parameters of what can be done, the smaller the meeting the better," he said.

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