Kerry and Gingrich Hugging Trees -- and (Almost) Each Other

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Yesterday's global-warming debate between John Kerry and Newt Gingrich was, as the moderator put it, "advertised as a smack-down and a prizefight." But those labels were too modest for Kerry.

"Welcome to our environmental version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates," the former Democratic presidential nominee told the crowd in the Russell Caucus Room. "We flipped a coin, and I picked Lincoln."

But something funny happened on the way to 1858. Gingrich, a former Republican House speaker, refused to play Douglas to Kerry's Lincoln, instead positioning himself as a tree-hugging green.

Before Kerry got a word in, Gingrich conceded that global warming is real, that humans have contributed to it and that "we should address it very actively." Gingrich held up Kerry's new book, "This Moment on Earth," and called it "a very interesting read." He then added a personal note about saving vulnerable species from climate change. "My name, Newt, actually comes from the Danish Knut, and there's been a major crisis in Germany over a polar bear named Knut," he confided.

The warm and fuzzy Gingrich surprised Kerry, who jettisoned prepared remarks that accused the former speaker of "marching in lock step with the climate-change deniers." Instead, Kerry found himself saying: "I've always enjoyed every dialogue he and I have ever had." He added that "your statement is very, very important" and gushed: "I frankly appreciate the candor."

The debate ended. They shook hands. Kerry put an arm around Gingrich. Gingrich put an arm around Kerry. For a brief but terrifying moment, they appeared to be on the verge of a hug.

Before it swerved in the direction of PBS's "NewsHour," the debate had the potential to be a clash of the former titans. Both men are prone to self-inflicted verbal wounds -- Gingrich recently called Spanish the "ghetto" language, and Kerry said last year that bad students get "stuck in Iraq" -- and they had the appearance of natural adversaries.

Gingrich, stout and jowly, went largely unnoticed by the audience as he took his seat before the debate. Kerry, lean and preening, stood in the doorway until the moderator, New York University's Paul Light, inquired: "Senator, would you like to come out and join us?"

Until yesterday, Gingrich and Kerry were not likely candidates for an embrace. When Kerry was running for president in 2004, Gingrich said the senator "thrashed and smeared and lied about U.S. soldiers" and was guilty of "consistent distortion over and over and over again on every front."

But Gingrich, weighing a long-shot presidential run, is unpredictable. He proved that by meeting with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton to discuss common ground on health care, and yesterday it was Kerry's turn to be surprised when Gingrich preemptively distanced himself from President Bush on global warming. "I agree entirely with whatever criticism the senator wants to make in general about the absence of American leadership," he said.

Even his one big difference with Kerry -- Gingrich favored tax incentives to reduce carbon dioxide rather than a government "cap and trade" program -- was negotiable. "I am not automatically saying that coercion and bureaucracy is not an answer," he granted.

Kerry appeared uncomfortable as Gingrich impersonated Al Gore. The senator tapped his foot, drummed his fingers, folded his arms and looked around the room with a crooked grin. He tried, at first, to lure Gingrich into a confrontation. "The essence of what I just heard from Newt," he said, is that climate change is "not such a crisis that we have to respond quickly."

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