Capital Culture: Candor rare in Oval Office talks

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.

Even when opposition-party legislators express a genuine willingness to work cooperatively while they're in the Oval Office, that impulse often begins to fade when they hit the White House driveway, says Mike McCurry, who served as Clinton's spokesman.

After Gingrich met with Clinton, McCurry says, the president often would relate to his staff the progress that they had made. But then "when Gingrich was surrounded by Dick Armey and some of the other Republican leaders, he wasn't nearly as forthcoming as he had been in some of the private conversations," McCurry added.

"That's where it gets difficult," McCurry said. "They have to continue to fly the flag afterward, and that is one of the reasons why it's hard to make progress."

The fact that Obama's meeting with congressional Republicans is such high-profile news is a sign itself of how things have changed, and not for the better.

Meetings between presidents and congressional leaders of both parties used to be humdrum, says Calvin Mackenzie, a presidential historian at Colby College.

"Lyndon Johnson would sit down with (Senate Minority Leader) Everett Dirksen at the end of the day. They'd have a drink. They'd do business together and that was the norm," says Mackenzie. "Now those norms are out the window. We have a much more divided set of institutions."

In today's highly partisan environment, says Mackenzie, talk about working together for the common good "evaporates very quickly" once the meeting ends.

In one recent high-profile meeting, the good will didn't even last that long.

In September 2008, as U.S. financial markets were seizing, Republican presidential candidate John McCain made a dramatic call for a break in the campaign so that he and Democrat Barack Obama could meet with Bush and congressional leaders.

With the candidates, congressional leaders and administration officials all crowded into the Cabinet Room, Bush opened the meeting by stressing the urgent need for legislation to bail out the financial industry. Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson spoke about the volatile financial markets. Obama spoke next. Then, the president called on McCain. He passed.

From there, Bush wrote in his memoir, "what had started as a drama quickly descended into a farce. Tempers flared. Voices were raised. Some barbs were thrown. I was watching a verbal food fight, which would have been comical except that the stakes were so high."

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