Dramatic change. Both men had seen their views of each other evolve over time. Clinton had once viewed Gingrich as an ideological bomb thrower, a reckless, power-hungry right-winger. While he still considered Gingrich temperamental and unpredictable, Clinton also believed that deep down inside Gingrich wanted to be remembered as a statesman, not a rebel.
Gingrich's views of Clinton had undergone the most dramatic change. He came to the speakership convinced he could dictate terms of surrender to the new president. He learned that Clinton possessed more backbone than he had imagined and that he was a skilled political fighter. He also over time disabused himself of the idea that Clinton was a "closet liberal.'' By 1997, he appreciated that Clinton "was a much more complicated person.... With the exception of his McGovern period, Clinton really is a southern Baptist populist,'' he reflected years later.
Convinced there was an opportunity to work together, the two men agreed to the secret White House meeting. While the discussion focused on their plans for Social Security and Medicare, the president and speaker also tried to unblock obstacles that threatened to derail the budget negotiations. Much of the conversation revolved around the horse trading on bills necessary to pass the 1998 budget. They focused on two controversial issues: Clinton's ongoing efforts to pass fast-track legislation, which would give the president greater authority to negotiate trade agreements, and appropriations for the United Nations.
The two leaders worked together to neutralize other hot-button issues. The speaker made clear that he needed a deal on the census. Democrats wanted to replace the traditional approach the government used to count people for the census with a new method based on statistical sampling. Republicans blocked the change, claiming that sampling favored Democrats. Realizing there was no easy answer, Clinton and Gingrich looked for a way to "kick it down the road''—coming up with a short-term solution that would placate all sides. The question of abortion in international aid, according to a White House official, "was always the last issue at 7 a.m. after you've been up two straight nights.'' Although the abortion issue was important for the large contingent of social conservatives in his party, Gingrich viewed it as a bargaining chip that could be used to exact concessions from Democrats on issues that were more important to him, such as increased spending for defense and space exploration. Neither he nor Clinton wanted it to block their larger agenda. "How do we punt this thing?'' they asked. Clinton raised the issue of "school testing.'' In his 1997 State of the Union, Clinton had included provisions for fourth-grade national testing in reading and math, but majorities in both houses voted against it by a vetoproof majority. Clinton wanted to revive it, and Gingrich offered constructive advice on the best way to proceed.
After the hourlong meeting, Clinton provided his guest with a brief tour of the Lincoln Bedroom before rushing off to dinner. Both men left feeling confident about the possibilities of success. There were still some major hurdles. There was enough distrust between the two men that neither was ready to fully let down his guard. The ''coalition'' was real, but fragile, capable of unraveling from the sheer weight of their mutual distrust. From Gingrich's perspective, the two men recognized that they shared common interests on some major policy initiatives. But they were "not going to be buddies for the rest of their lives.''
Clinton and Gingrich were both taking big risks. Politically, Gingrich was taking the bigger gamble, since he faced the possibility of a rebellion that could cost him his speakership. There would be no deal without Gingrich, and White House aides worried whether he could maintain his grip on power. For now, he talked about creating an ''echo chamber'' by getting a small number of influential members to speak out in support of the reform effort to insulate himself from the inevitable conservative backlash. The president had to contend with some political perils of his own. He knew that the initiative would not be popular with some members of his administration. The situation was further complicated by Al Gore, who now viewed administration initiatives through the prism of his own campaign for president less than two years away.