Message Muddled In 'Crybaby' Incident

JUST about everybody was reading or hearing what a crybaby House Speaker Newt Gingrich has proved to be. He was being so depicted after telling reporters that a presidential snub on the recent flight to and from Israel had prompted him to ''send down a tougher'' stopgap spending plan, one that brought about the veto and the government shutdown.

But I sat next to Mr. Gingrich at that Monitor breakfast where the Speaker was spilling out his inner thoughts and feelings about what was really behind the breakdown in the relations between Congress and the president.

His problem: This expert in the use of the English language, who is known for his clarity, somehow muddied up his message. Was he overly tired? Perhaps.

Whatever the reason, the Speaker that morning treated us journalists with a kind of stream-of-consciousness monologue in which, on the one hand, he indicated that the restrictions added onto the interim spending plan - which prompted President Clinton's veto - had come about because the president and his party had stayed aloof from him and Dole on that 25-hour round trip on the plane.

But, on the other hand, there was much in what Gingrich told us to indicate he really had interpreted this failure of the president to talk out the budget differences on the plane as a signal that a presidential strategy of confrontation was in place. ''So OK,'' Gingrich was telling us in effect, ''if Clinton is going to play a tough game on the budget, so can we.''

''My feelings weren't hurt,'' he said. ''Our [Dole's and my] assumption was that they hadn't seen us deliberately, that [White House Chief of Staff Leon] Panetta hadn't talked to us deliberately - that in fact what they were saying to us was, 'We are on opposite teams.' ''

Gingrich continued: ''Frankly, if we had had a couple of hours of dialogue on the airplane, I think we would have had a much better understanding and we might have been in a better position to work something out. They didn't want to talk. They didn't want a better understanding. They wanted to get into a public fight where they thought they'd win.''

Reporters writing after that breakfast were left with two interpretations: (1) That Gingrich had helped bring about the government shutdown because the president had hurt his feelings or (2) That Gingrich (and Dole, too) had decided the president was going to play hardball on the budget because of his aloofness on that long plane journey - and that they therefore had reacted by sending up a tougher interim measure than they previously had planned.

If Gingrich had stuck with his assertion that the president had missed a big opportunity on the plane, he would have escaped the scalding that he received from the media. But he mixed this up by complaining about the way he and Dole had been treated on the journey: ''When you land at Andrews and have been on the plane for 25 hours and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get out by the back ramp so the media won't picture the majority leader and the Speaker returning from Israel, you just wonder: Where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?''

''I know this is petty,'' Gingrich added. ''And Tony [press secretary Tony Blankley, sitting nearby] will probably say that I shouldn't have said it. But it is human.''

At this point I watched Mr. Blankley. He stood, walked over to the door of our hotel banquet room. He was fidgety. Understandably so.

So Gingrich got a lot of bad press out of that breakfast. Most of the media ran with the ''crybaby'' version, portrayed in a New York Daily News front-page sketch. Gingrich deserved a more balanced version of what he said. But it must be emphasized that the usually articulate Speaker got himself into trouble by flunking clarity at that breakfast.

If Gingrich had simply asserted that Clinton had missed a big opportunity on the plane, he would have escaped the media scalding.

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