The Bill and Newt Show

THE convivial convening of President Clinton and House Speaker Newt Gingrich before a televised senior citizens' meeting in Claremont, N.H., Sunday broke a fundamental rule of zero-sum politics: Both emerged as winners.

And maybe, just maybe, it was even a win-win-win situation, adding a boost as well for comity and serious political discussion over sloganeering and attack-style politics.

For its part, the media couldn't resist giving the event the kind of pick-the-bones-clean analysis usually reserved for the last throes of a presidential campaign. They found plenty on which to speculate. Speaker Gingrich is the second-most-formidable noncandidate for president, after the elusive Gen. Colin Powell. But he doesn't run well in trial polls against Mr. Clinton. Even the guy at the next stool at the doughnut shop seems to know that Gingrich's "negatives" are too high. He can seem shrill and pedantic.

Showing off his best, most-moderate persona, Gingrich undoubtedly erased some of those negatives. He freely complimented the president and disagreed only in respectful tones. He backed the creation of a bipartisan commission to reform lobbying and campaign financing, and Clinton quickly agreed to the idea.

Some analysts argued Clinton blundered into allowing Gingrich to share the limelight. But, wait, say others: Clinton wants Gingrich to look good and rise in the public's eyes to damage the campaign of Sen. Bob Dole, who polls well against Clinton. How clever of James Carville and the other White House political handlers! they say.

Whatever the politics involved, what truly can be applauded was the burst of early summer warmth away from Washington's sometimes cold and cruel bickering. A democracy needs real dialogue and real discussion of issues to function well. Both the president and the speaker showed they could disagree on important issues - Medicare funding, the minimum wage, AmeriCorps, and the value of the UN, for example - without spinning out half-truths or conducting personal attacks. Audience members, whether Republican or Democrat, seemed to love the idea that the two leaders were committed to working together to help America.

The trick now is whether some of The Spirit of Claremont can be transferred back to Washington.

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