WASHINGTON—They once were polar opposites. She was the iconic first lady with a massive health-care plan and dire warnings of a "vast right-wing conspiracy." He was the combative policy wonk who led the 1994 Republican revolution that installed him as speaker of the House of Representatives.
On Wednesday, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Newt Gingrich stood side by side, chummily advocating bipartisan legislation on electronic health-care records. At a time of blistering partisanship in the capital, it was an eye-popping Washington moment.
"I know," Clinton laughed, "it may be a little bit of cognitive dissonance." Some, she joked, may think their alliance means, "The end is near."
Gingrich, who's also working with Clinton on national security issues, said they were "prepared to put ideology and partisanship aside." To partisans who may scoff, or even recoil, from such a partnership, he said: "If we're prepared to try to save your life, maybe that's a little more important than the latest partisan cheap shots."
Until recently, the only thing Clinton and Gingrich had in common was that they were both seen as the hobgoblins of their parties. Gingrich, a former Georgia lawmaker, was the bugbear that Democrats used to rouse their base. Clinton, now a senator from New York, is still the Statue of Liberalism that conservatives like to use against Democrats.
Lately, the two former Clinton-era warriors have become something of a mutual admiration society. And Wednesday's joint appearance helped advance Gingrich's new role as conservative elder statesman and Clinton's image as a moderate presidential wannabe.
"They both help each other," said political scientist Merle Black of Emory University in Atlanta. But he suggested that Clinton might stand to benefit more because "she's a player and he's not."
"Newt doesn't represent anything," he said. The advantage to Gingrich, Black said, is "reminding people he's there."
The medical records legislation that Clinton and Gingrich endorsed was introduced in the House by Rep. Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican and psychologist, and Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island, a son of Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.
Advocates said the bill would save lives by replacing inefficient paper-based records with a confidential electronic network of health information. Gingrich noted that such a system would eliminate medical mistakes from illegible prescription orders. "Paper kills," he said.
Similar Senate legislation is pending. Clinton said she was working with Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., Sen. Kennedy and Sen. Michael Enzi, R-Wyo., to introduce a bill this summer.
Frist has talked about linking increases in Medicare or Medicaid reimbursements to the use of high-tech medical-information retrieval. "This linkage of incentives, which hadn't been done, to me would further my world vision of health care with more information technology, more electronic medical records, as part of the consumer movement that patients have insisted upon," Frist said in an interview earlier this year.
The trio of Clinton, Gingrich and Frist on a health-care initiative brings together three potential presidential adversaries in 2008.
Clinton scored at the top as a contender in a recent poll of Democratic insiders by National Journal magazine. Frist, who isn't planning to seek re-election when his term ends next year, has said he'll decide whether to run after his Senate stint is over. Gingrich, who's been on something of a reintroduction tour to the American public, sometimes is mentioned as a candidate for the Republican nomination, as well.
For now, though, it's about health care. And, responding to Clinton's remark about a Clinton-Gingrich team heralding the end of times, Gingrich invoked the name of a popular author of apocalyptic novels.
"I don't know if we're going to be one of Tim LaHaye's future novels," he said.
Still, Clinton and Gingrich? This alliance is one for the books.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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