the Comeback Kid
WHEN THE TWO MOST POTENT figures in national politics met at a Washington dinner in the spring of 1996, it was inevitable that their conversation turned to the 1996 presidential election. Given their relative circumstances, it was also probably inevitable that when House Speaker Gingrich and President Clinton chatted during the predinner reception, it was Gingrich who had the most to say.
"You've done some things very well since we took over the Congress," the Speaker told the president. "But now you have to face how hard this campaign is going to be. Right now, if I had to guess," Gingrich added, "I'd say your chances of winning are about one in three."
The president did not take umbrage at this gratuitous observation, or so it seemed to Gingrich when he later told me about the conversation. "We were just two professionals talking business," the Speaker explained. But Clinton did not argue the point, either. Indeed, at that particular moment in political time, not many in Washington, including leaders of Clinton's own party, would have had much ground for disagreeing with the Speaker's assessment.
True, the tragic bombing in Oklahoma City had worked to Clinton's advantage, allowing him to emerge from the shadows of public discourse and score a point or two against the leaders of the conservative tide that had engulfed the nation. But it was by no means clear that this recovery represented anything more than a temporary relief for the beleaguered chief executive.
Even as the overblown reaction to the Republican midterm triumph subsided, Clinton still faced a fundamental problem: He lacked any compelling rationale for his presidency, let alone for winning reelection to a second