The Coalition That Could Have Been

Book Revisits Clinton-Gingrich Relationship

Posted June 9, 2008 at 3:41pm

Those who followed American politics in the 1990s would likely find it hard to believe that President Bill Clinton and Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) secretly plotted to unite in a centrist coalition to fix Social Security and Medicare. Yet Steven Gillon, resident historian of the History Channel and professor of history at the University of Oklahoma, says just that in his new book, “The Pact.”

The book originally aimed to look exclusively at the politics and culture wars that dominated the 1990s through the lens of 1960s social divisions examined in Gillon’s earlier work, “Boomer Nation.” But then a source (who has asked to remain anonymous) gave Gillon notes about a clandestine October 1997 Clinton-Gingrich meeting, and Gillon changed the whole focus of his book.

According to Gillon, Gingrich and Arne Christenson, his chief of staff, arrived at the White House shortly after 7 p.m. on Oct. 28, 1997, for the private meeting. Clinton, Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and Legislative Director John Hilley were waiting for them in the Treaty Room on the second floor of the White House.

The meeting was secret. Gillon said that when he asked other members of the Clinton White House about it while he was working on the book, they did not believe him. “There was not a single member of the Congressional Democratic leadership in the room,” Gillon said. “The vice president did not know. The first lady did not know. It could be happening today, right now and we wouldn’t know it. I wouldn’t bet on it, but who knows.”

Although neither man could forgive the other for his negative political attacks, both Clinton and Gingrich realized they needed to work together to accomplish any significant policy objectives in an increasingly polarized Congress, Gillon said. Before the meeting ended, he said, the pair had agreed to form a new center/right coalition of conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans to institute Social Security and Medicare reform.

Four months later, however, any hope of such a coalition was abandoned after revelations of Clinton’s affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Gillon said he originally assumed placing blame on the affair was Republican spin, but a phone interview with Bowles confirmed that was not the case.

“There was a long pause — I remember the moment,” Gillon said. “I expected [Bowles] to say, ‘That is 100 percent bull.’ Instead he said, ‘That is absolutely 100 percent right.’” The scandal forced Clinton to seek refuge with the liberal wing of his party, extinguishing his opportunity to create a bridge between the two parties.

Gillon said he was given unprecedented access to notes and people, making it relatively easy to confirm the details of the secret October meeting.

“I asked and I got it,” Gillon said. “Gingrich gave me access to his private papers and put no restrictions on what I could say. The papers were very revealing and very helpful.”

Getting a hold of Clinton was a greater challenge, and Gillon never succeeded in speaking with him directly about the meeting. “I wanted to sit down with him like I sat down with everyone else,” Gillon said. “That was a disappointment to me.”

Adding to the challenge, Gillon said, was that only about 5 percent of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library is currently available for research because of restrictions placed on declassifying documents.

“The materials we need to have access to will not be available for a long time,” Gillon said. “There is nothing there — well not nothing — but very little is available for researchers.”

Although the October meeting is undoubtedly the book’s climax, Gillon spends about 200 pages drawing parallels between the lives of Clinton and Gingrich beginning with their childhoods and ending with the Clinton presidency. Gillon explains how both men had eerily similar backgrounds but ultimately veered to opposite sides of the political spectrum.

Gillon said he originally had aspirations to become a professional baseball pitcher and never imagined he would write books about America’s most powerful political leaders. It was not until his sophomore year of college that Gillon realized he would never make it in baseball throwing a 65 mph fastball and decided to change course.

“It was a Tuesday afternoon around 5 o’clock, and I was in the outfield,” Gillon said. “I turned in my baseball uniform and went to the library for the first time ever. … It was like a switch was switched on that day.”

Gillon went on to teach at Yale and Oxford universities, and he currently teaches history at the University of Oklahoma under President David Boren, a former Democratic Senator and Gillon’s friend. “I think I am the first person to ever leave Oxford for the University of Oklahoma,” Gillon joked.

Gillon owes his permanent job at the History Channel to the generosity of one of his closest friends, the late John Kennedy Jr. In casual conversation with Kennedy one day, Gillon mentioned that he would love to expand his sporadic appearances on the History Channel to something larger.

“John picked up the phone … and said he would offer himself for an exclusive interview in honor of his father’s 80th birthday under one condition … that I hosted the show,” Gillon said. Impressed with Gillon’s performance, the channel invited him to host “HistoryCENTER,” the Sunday morning current events program, which Gillon has anchored since 1998.

In addition to his passion for history, Gillon loves writing books and unraveling stories. Although the coalition ultimately failed, Gillon thinks its story sends a hopeful message for the future, particularly for the upcoming administration.

“Two of the most polarizing figures in American politics came together to find common ground,” Gillon said. “It is tragic it was not realized … but it shows there is that possibility.”