Washington Sketch: Gingrich-Sharpton Odd Couple Comes to White House

By Dana Milbank
Friday, May 8, 2009

President Obama raised a ruckus for shaking hands with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and for bowing to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah (or did he just lean over to say hello?).

Now he's kowtowing to Newt Gingrich and Al Sharpton.

Well, kowtowing may be a bit strong. But Obama did invite the far-left civil rights activist and the far-right former House speaker to join him in the Oval Office yesterday. The two political opposites shared a love seat for 45 minutes and talked with the president about education. No heavy objects were thrown.

"You're probably the only president who can make this happen," the Reverend Al told his host when they had taken their seats. Obama laughed.

"This can bring attention to the issue, and these are the two guys who know more than anybody how to get attention," the president said, according to one participant.

By the end of their time on the couch, the two adversaries were joking with each other about their famously ample waistlines: Sharpton had lost a considerable amount of weight; Gingrich had apparently found some. "I'm still recovering from Bush's recession," the Reverend said of his lean figure.

For Obama, it was but the latest dalliance with strange bedfellows. Earlier this week, he called Jeff Sessions (Ala.), the new ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "He's so nice," Sessions, the usually irascible conservative, commented.

On Wednesday, Obama sat down at the White House with Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), among the Senate's most conservative members. Also this week: a presidential phone call to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and a sit-down at the White House with Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Obama, of course, is on record expressing willingness to talk with most anybody, even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But still, the Gingrich-Sharpton duo was a particularly exotic combination. Obama aides in the press office knew the risk of fireworks was high in a meeting involving Sharpton and Gingrich, and they carefully guarded details of the session.

"Were you in the education meeting today?" Jon Ward of the Washington Times asked press secretary Robert Gibbs at the daily briefing.

Gibbs was not. "Too bad," the reporter said.

"I have to admit," Gibbs said, "I'm a little sorry I missed it."

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