After Steven Gillon’s book salon on FDL the other day, I went back and listened to what Bill Clinton had to say about his efforts to reform Social Security at the Pete Peterson confab last month:

CLINTON: The reason we didn’t get Social Security reform is because the Chairman of Ways & Means Committee, Bill Archer of Texas and I, had just about reached a deal where we would slow down the cost of living increases for social security and make them more in line for real costs of living, at least for upper income people, we would do more on that.

In return for which we would make available through tax incentives the opportunity to build a savings account on top of Social Security. And we had worked the numbers out, we thought we could take it out 75 years.

And as far as I could determine, it was about the only issue that Newt Gingrich and Dick Gephardt agreed on: they both told us that neither party wanted to fool with social security before the 2000 elections, and would we please go away. And you know, if the leaders of both houses are against something, it’s pretty hard to pass something. Especially it was..and I got it, they were listening to their members and they didn’t want to take the heat. I don’t think there would’ve been much heat, I think people would’ve appreciated it.

And now..if the numbers I see on Pete’s chart are anything close to right, the fix that we had would not be sufficient to take it out of a 75 year lifespan, and to take the coming burden off the budget.

That directly contradicts direct quotes from both Newt Gingrich and Erskine Bowles throughout Gillon’s book:

Gingrich elaborated on his dealings with Clinton, his high hopes for forging a new coalition, and his frustration over how the president’s recklessness derailed such a promising historacal moment. In January 2006, I called Bowles at his Charlotte office and explained how Gingrich viewed the meeting and its significance, fully expecting him to offer an alternative “White House interpretation” that downplayed its importance and minimized the role that the Lewinsky scandal played in preventing Social Security and Medicare reform. Instead, I discovered why Bowles had earned the reputation for being a straight-shooter. He asked to see the notes of the meeting and offered to share them with the president. He made clear that he never spoke with writers without the president’s permission, which he received. When I called him back a few days later, there was no spin — just frustration, a touch of sadness, and, after a long silence, emphatic agreement. “That’s absolutely 100 percent right,” he said. In that discussion, and a later meeting at his office, Bowles talked about his shuttle diplomacy between the White House and Capitol Hill, the careful planning that went on behind the scenes to broker the meeting, and his disapointment with the president and his actions in the Lewinsky affair. The small number of White House aides involved in the negotiations supported his version of events and added valuable insight and detail on the Clinton-Gingrich relationship.

According to Gillon’s account, which was based on access to Newt’s private papers and interviews with key players, Gingrich “lost his political wiggle room and was forced to appease his right-wing base” as the Lewinsky situation played out.”

Bowles talked about what happened when the story broke:

When Bowles asked the president about the story that morning, Clinton denied it. “Erskine,” he said, “I want you to know that this story is not true.” Bowles was crushed by the alleged charges, which he assured were untrue. He was also devastated that a potentially great moment had been lost. Whether true or not, he understood the political implications: all of their hard work in building the alliance with Gingrich had been destroyed. “It was game over,” he recalled. Bowles believes that the Lewinsky affair “was one of the seminal moments in American history.” There was no doubt in his mind that Clinton and Gingrich would have created a plan for reforming both Social Security and Medicare that year and, perhaps, set the stage for a new period of bipartisanship. “Gingrich wanted to do it; Clinton wanted to do it. It was a real missed opportunity,” he said. “Monica changed everything.” John Hilley, who played a key role in developing a legislative strategy for Social Security reform, shared Bowles’s disappointment. “The scandal effectively undermined the bipartisanship that had accomplished so much in 1996 and 1997.”

No one in the book backs up Clinton’s assertion that Newt pulled the plug on addressing Social Security because he didn’t want to take heat from his caucus for doing so. “The Lewinsky scandal forced Gingrich to shift gears,” writes Gillon. “He woke up on the morning of January 21 believing that he and Clinton were going to work together to forge a political realignment. He went to bed that night knowing there would be no Social Security or Medicare reform, and no centrist political coalition.”

Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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