By Dana Milbank
Thursday, September 17, 2009
It sounded like the beginning of a joke from the 1990s: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich and Trent Lott walk into a bar . . .
But on Wednesday afternoon, it really happened. The three old adversaries who ruled the nation in the mid-1990s got together to talk and laugh, not in a saloon but in the Old Senate Chamber at the Capitol. They had come at the invitation of Lott to unveil his official Senate portrait -- and the joke wasn't lost on any of them.
"I was kidding Newt about accusing me of being 'the enemy of normal Americans' -- that was one of his better ones," Clinton said as the former House speaker twiddled his thumbs. "Then we spent $7 million looking into the land deal that I lost money on, which means he thought I was both crooked and stupid. Actually, I think the stupid hurt more than the crooked." The audience howled. Gingrich did not. Turning to the guest of honor, Clinton said: "The worst thing Trent said about me was that I was a spoiled brat."
Lott recalled the time when Clinton paid a visit to the Capitol and asked to use Lott's bathroom. "I had a lot of cartoons on the walls -- they were all about President Clinton," the former majority leader recalled. "He came out and said, 'Hey, those are pretty good.' " The president then sent Lott a framed cartoon showing Republicans putting Clinton in a straitjacket and burying him, only for Clinton to appear in the last frame, saying, "I think you got him this time."
Gingrich, in his turn at the microphone, offered his version of a tribute. "The president -- and coming from me this is really saying a lot -- was sometimes controversial," he said. "I was sometimes controversial. Trent watched the two of us, shook his head and wondered why we wasted so much energy with controversy when we could get so many more things done."
So why were the three old foes together for an hour of handshakes and happy reminiscences? "I thought it might be a good time for us to show that a president, a speaker, the leaders, can find a way to come together," Lott explained. "If three good ol' boys from the South like the ones you've heard today can find a way to get it done," he said, "I know the outstanding leaders that we have in the Congress . . . can get it done."
It was such a heartwarming scene that it made you wonder: If Lott were still the Senate Republican leader, maybe we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years. Lott, of course, lost that post in late 2002 when he said his infamous line about how "we wouldn't have had all these problems" if Strom Thurmond had been elected president. Had Lott survived, things undoubtedly would be different today. The consummate dealmaker, Lott was the principal broker of the balanced budget, welfare reform and other policy triumphs of the 1990s; it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have been able to negotiate a health-care compromise in 2009.
The scent of dealmaking (actually, the sweet smell of pipe tobacco) was in the Old Senate Chamber as former lawmakers and luminaries of K Street assembled for the ceremony: Tommy Boggs, Lott lobbying partner John Breaux, Nick Calio, Bob Livingston, Bob Michel. Strange bedfellows converged: Former senator Larry Craig sat just in front of Sen. John Ensign, who was two seats away from former senator Ted Stevens. About half of the Senate was in attendance, equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans. The majority leader, Harry Reid, expressed the prevailing sentiment when he said, "I really miss having Trent Lott in the Senate."
It was a moment few could have imagined. Here was Lott, who once refused to support Clinton's bombing of Iraq and suggested the attack was to distract from impeachment proceedings. There was Gingrich, who once suggested that he had shut down the government because Clinton made him use the back stairs of Air Force One. The names were endless: Gingrich called Clinton a "counterculture McGovernik." Lott said Clinton had been "disgusting" and practiced "demagoguery." Clinton said Gingrich was trying to "blackmail" him.
On Wednesday, though, the men acted as if they had been pals all along. "The three of us in some ways are very similar," Gingrich proposed. "We came out of nowhere, we had no plausible reason to get here . . . and all three of us got here and couldn't believe the other two were here."
Clinton ad-libbed a response. "I still wonder what I'm doing here," he said after shaking Gingrich's hand. "Actually, for the first time in my life, I found myself agreeing with most of what Newt said." Carried away by the moment, Clinton offered the dubious claim about "what good chemistry Trent and Newt and I had in private."
Of the three former antagonists, Lott got the last word. He said that he and Clinton, back in the '90s, would call each other on the phone to "rag on them" whenever "I did something or said something stupid. Or vice versa," Lott added with emphasis. Clinton laughed himself red in the face at this oblique reference to the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"People are sometimes shocked that you can be adversaries legislatively and then develop a real friendship," Lott said. In fact, he said, "we were sort of a triangle."
But not quite a love triangle.