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Gingrich Blames the Media

Monica Lewinsky Monica Lewinsky outside federal courthouse in August. (Reuters file)

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  • By Howard Kurtz
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Wednesday, November 5, 1998; Page E1

    When Newt Gingrich tangled with Katie Couric yesterday morning, he had a handy explanation as to why the voters had dashed his party's hopes.

    He blamed the media for perpetually flogging the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

    "I don't think we are nearly as obsessed as the press corps. . . . Look at all the hours that Tim Russert spent on 'Meet the Press' this year on that topic versus the number of hours on Social Security. . . . I don't think hour after hour of details about Lewinsky are very newsworthy. . . . It is a little disingenuous to spend all this media time on a topic and then turn and say why are these other folks obsessed with it," the House speaker said on "Today."

    Gingrich was among a small battalion of lawmakers, party hacks, pundits and other operatives storming the airwaves with their spin. The Georgia Republican began honing his message on election night. "The news media is infinitely more fascinated by impeachment than the House Republicans," he told ABC. "The environment the media created said there was only one issue that mattered," he told CNN.

    On one level, the Georgia Republican wasn't far off in describing the media's Monica madness. From the nightly cable gabfests to the front pages of major newspapers, there's been no more dominant topic than the president and the intern.

    But the former history professor also seemed to be writing himself out of this particular chapter. Gingrich declared last April that he would "never again, as long as I am speaker, make a speech without commenting on this topic" of the White House sex scandal. His House Republicans released the president's videotaped testimony and then voted to launch open-ended impeachment hearings. He approved a final-week blitz of scandal ads that aired in 30 key districts. (The ads, Gingrich told Couric, "were in a context created in large part by the news media.")

    "It's such a mind-boggling comment, it's hard to know where to begin," said Bill Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "The House of Representatives formally votes to have impeachment hearings on the president of the United States, and Gingrich thinks that shouldn't be covered by the media? He thinks we should cover -- what? -- his unambitious and uninteresting legislative agenda? He's flailing."

    University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato called Gingrich's remarks "absolutely absurd. The press is everybody's favorite whipping boy. When it's convenient, it's always the press's fault. Every single one of [the Republicans] was calling around fanning the flames on the Lewinsky matter. . . . Their minds are fried. They can't believe they have ended up losing seats."

    Neither, at first, could the press pack. When reporters and commentators kept saying the Democrats were exceeding expectations, they neatly ignored the fact that their own chattering class had been chattering about a Republican pickup of five to 15 House seats and three or four in the Senate. Instead, the Democrats gained five in the House and fought to a draw in the Senate.

    "We all missed it," Sabato conceded. Not one of the professional prognosticators in The Washington Post's Outlook section predicted that the Democrats would pick up House seats.

    "It's the weirdest damn election I've ever had," said Charlie Cook, publisher of an independent newsletter on House races, who predicted single-digit gains for the GOP. "If the results are better than the winning party ever thought, I think we all came pretty close."

    Cook feels less good about his prediction, the day before the Kenneth Starr report was released, that Clinton would be gone by Columbus Day (as a caller to Diane Rehm's radio show rudely reminded him yesterday). "Guess what? I had a hell of a lot of company," Cook said.

    For the record: On the "McLaughlin Group," John McLaughlin said the GOP would gain 13 House seats; Pat Buchanan, 12; Michael Barone, 8; former Gingrich spokesman Tony Blankley, 7; and Eleanor Clift, 6. On ABC's "This Week," George Will said 6 to 20 seats, Kristol said 15. On CNN's "Capital Gang," Al Hunt and Robert Novak both saw the Republicans picking up five Senate seats.

    Despite these cracked crystal balls -- not unlike 1994, when few experts predicted the Republicans would seize both houses of Congress -- some media mavens were quick to make sweeping pronouncements after Tuesday's results. No sooner would someone cite exit polls showing that Lewinsky was not a factor in the voting than someone else would declare that President Clinton was now out of the political woods.

    "As far as impeachment is concerned, it's about to go the way of the dodo," GOP strategist Jay Severin said on MSNBC after the polls had closed in just a handful of states. He added that Republicans should "take Newt's belt and shoelaces away from him."

    Former Clintonite George Stephanopoulos declared impeachment "over" on "Imus in the Morning."

    "Most people in Washington believe the results mean it is less likely that Dick Gephardt will run for president," said CNN's John King.

    NBC's Gwen Ifill called Gingrich "perhaps the biggest loser of the night" and said the poor GOP showing "could jeopardize his future" as speaker. Sam Donaldson and Cokie Roberts called the results a boost for Vice President Gore in 2000.

    All this punditry was punctuated by the politicians' own explanations.

    Gingrich declared in one interview after another that this was the first time in 70 years the Republicans had controlled both chambers in three straight elections. Again, he jabbed the press, telling CNN: "You'd think that to do something for the first time in 70 years would be a fairly big deal, but not among the Washington pundits." (That was just after 9:30 p.m.; as Republican setbacks mounted, Gingrich canceled a scheduled round of 1 a.m. network interviews.)

    Republican Chairman Jim Nicholson was the most creative, explaining GOP losses in major Southern races by saying: "The transformation in the South is not yet fully completed." While Democrats insisted the Republicans had failed to capture the usual number of seats in a sixth-year presidency, Nicholson said his party had won a huge victory in 1994 and "we can't make those kind of gains every year."

    Dan Quayle offered backhanded praise: "The Democrats, though they demagogued the issues as usual, got their issues out there."

    House Minority Leader Gephardt devised his own yardstick, saying the election was "historic" because it was the first time since FDR's first term that the party holding the White House had picked up House seats.

    White House officials, seeing no need to crow, stayed off the air, but their view was represented by former Clinton spokesman Mike McCurry, who was paired with Tony Blankley as CNN analysts. "Democrats are doing well," McCurry said, "precisely because they stressed issues like Social Security, like health care, like education" -- the very issues he stressed from the White House podium until last month.

    The media, of course, always need a new story line. And so it was that "Today" anchor Matt Lauer asked Jesse "The Body" Ventura -- who confounded the usual experts by winning the Minnesota governorship -- if he would run for higher office. "I've learned in the world of pro wrestling, you never say never," Ventura replied.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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