W. Joseph Campbell

Feeling like 1995

In Media myths, Newspapers, Scandal, Washington Post, Watergate myth on October 3, 2013 at 12:27 pm

These days have evoked 1995 in more than a few respects.

The sale of the Washington Post closed Tuesday; the new owner is Jeff Bezos, who in July 1995 began selling books at Amazon.com, in near-total obscurity.

Amazon since then has made Bezos a multibillionaire and he has recently talked about leading the sometimes-arrogant Post to a new golden era, a vague reference to the Post’s mythologized reporting of the Watergate scandal 40 years ago.

The episode today in which a woman tried to rammed her car into a barricade near the White House, setting off a wild and deadly chase that ended near the Capitol, was faintly evocative of the night in May 1995 when an intruder scaled a fence near the White House, unloaded pistol in hand. “I’m here to see the president!” he shouted before being shot and wounded by a secret service agent.

Today also marks the 18th anniversary of the acquittal of O.J. Simpson in the slayings of his former wife and her friend. Simpson’s trial lasted more than nine months and its related controversies spread like a stain across 1995.

Crybaby Newt_1995NYDN

Recalling 1995: Newt and the shutdown (New York Daily News)

The strongest allusions to 1995 are of course to be found in the partial shutdown of the federal government — the first since the closures of November 14-19, 1995, and of December 16, 1995, to January 6, 1996.

The shutdowns, then and now, are alike in their effects — government workers sent home, federal landmarks and national parks closed — but differ notably in their immediate causes.

As the Wall Street Journal has noted, “The sticking points during that 1995-96 fight centered on demands from Republicans … for cuts in spending on entitlements such as Medicare, the health-care program for retirees, as well as other nondefense spending.” They also pressed President Bill Clinton to agree to balance the federal budget within seven years.

The second and longer shutdown took shape when Clinton and the Congressional Republicans, led by Speaker Newt Gingrich, differed over how to calculate whether the budget would be balanced in seven years, as the Journal pointed out.

The confrontations had improbable effects.

They allowed Clinton to steady his shaky administration; much of 1995 had been a time of missteps and gaffes for Clinton. He was reduced, for example, to insisting on his relevancy as a president amid a political landscape where Gingrich and the Republicans were ascendant following sweeping victories in midterm elections in 1994.

The government shutdowns of 1995 brought confirmation of Gingrich’s pricklinesss and volatility. One of the most remarkable moments of the government closure was his ill-considered outburst on November 15, 1995.

At a breakfast meeting with journalists, Gingrich acknowledged that a measure of personal pique was behind his toughening up the spending bill that Clinton vetoed to set in motion the furlough of 800,000 government employees.

Gingrich complained that Clinton had passed up an opportunity to negotiate the budget issues aboard Air Force One the week before, during a long trip home from Israel, where the president and congressional leaders had attended the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin.

Not only that, but Gingrich complained that he and Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole were forced to leave the Air Force One by the rear stairs after landing at Andrews Air Force base in Maryland.

“This is petty,” Gingrich said at the breakfast meeting. But “you land at Andrews and you’ve been on the plane for twenty-five hours [for the round trip to Israel] and nobody has talked to you and they ask you to get off the plane by the back ramp. . . . You just wonder, where is their sense of manners? Where is their sense of courtesy?”

The perceived slights and rude treatment, Gingrich said, were “part of [the reason] why you ended up with us sending down a tougher” spending measure, making Clinton’s veto and the government shutdown a certainty.

The outburst turned Gingrich into the petulant poster boy of the government shutdown. The New York Daily News caricatured him as a wailing toddler, stamping his foot in anger. Gingrich’s favorability ratings, which had been ebbing throughout 1995, fell further during the shutdowns.

Clinton may have steadied his presidency during the shutdowns. But he also engaged in conduct that would bring his administration to the brink of ruin.

On the night of Gingrich’s outburst, Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky, a White House intern then 22-years-old, had their first sexual encounter at the White House — the first in a series of furtive liaisons that would lead, improbably, to Clinton’s impeachment three years later.


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