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Roughhousing in Washington : Fighting the Politics of Verdun

November 19, 1995|Martin Walker | Martin Walker is U.S. bureau chief for Britain's the Guardian and author of "The Cold War; A History" (Henry Holt)

WASHINGTON — Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) lives by history. No political moment is allowed to pass without the Speaker of the House offering its historical parallel. And last week, to give context to what he insisted was "one of the great historic turning points of American history," he cast back almost eight centuries.

"The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution based on the Magna Carta, which was in 1215, 780 years ago, and it says that tax bills and spending bills have to come from the Congress; that the President can't spend money if the Congress doesn't give it to him," said the former assistant professor of history at West Georgia College.

The English barons, who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta at Runnymede, might be startled to hear this interpretation of their bid to assert their noble privileges--including the right to be hanged by a silken noose, rather than a common rope.

No matter. The Speaker's point is clear. This confrontation is as old as parliaments, on whom kings depended to vote the taxes required to finance the state. This was the issue that provoked the English civil war, and, at a stretch, one could call it the argument that launched and justified the American revolution.

In the absence of compromise, these disputes have, in the past, been settled by war. The ink was barely dry on the Magna Carta before King John marched against his rebellious barons, and in 1649, King Charles I lost his head after Parliament won the war to assert its sole authority over the right to tax England.

So, it is curious that an enthusiastic student of military history like Gingrich has not mentioned the most ominous martial parallel to the current crisis: the World War I battle of Verdun in 1916--on which site the young Gingrich had his great epiphany.

"I got active in this business of politics and self-government in 1958, when my father, who was serving in the U.S. Army, took us to the battlefield of Verdun," Gingrich recalled. "It literally changed my life. I came to the conclusion that threats to civilization are real, that the quality of leadership is a major factor in whether civilization survives."

The battle of Verdun began Feb. 21, 1916. It ended 10 months later, with 540,000 French and 430,000 German casualties. The French had recovered most

of the four miles the Germans initially captured. Neither army was ever the same. The Kaiser ultimately lost his throne. The fall of France, in 1940, can be traced almost directly to the bloodletting of Verdun.

Like the current crisis in Washington, the battle was not supposed to end that way. German Field Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn chose to attack the great fortress of Verdun not to take it, but to force the French to bleed themselves white trying to hold it against the deadly bombardment of the massed German guns.

The strategic parallel is exact. Gingrich believes he has found his Verdun in the insistence that the budget be balanced within seven years--forcing President Bill Clinton to defend an untenable position at ruinous cost. But just as the French found the moral and human reserves to hold on, Clinton has sought to make his Verdun impregnable, by fighting on the ground of Medicare, education and environmental protection.

There is another parallel with Verdun, which Gingrich may have forgotten. Von Falkenhayn's ruthless genius was frustrated by the German crown prince, son of the Kaiser, who forgot the goal was to make the French bleed, and instead made his German troops bleed in the vain and repeated attempt to take the place.

The 73 GOP freshmen, whose political ideology makes Gingrich look like a moderate, are playing the role of the crown prince. Refusing all compromise, they seek not to weaken the White House by attrition, but to crush it, replacing "the failed liberal welfare state" with Gingrich's vision of the conservative opportunity society in one fell swoop.

But decisive battles are usually won by surprise--which is why neither the White House nor the GOP Congress is likely to claim any overwhelming victory in Washington's great budgetary standoff.

Everybody saw this coming months ago. Gingrich forecasted it back on April 11. In September, Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin assured his fellow finance ministers that they need not worry about a global market meltdown being provoked by a Treasury default. The solutions were already in hand.

So were the responses. The White House had game-planned the crisis with extraordinary care by Chief of Staff Leon E. Panetta--who has some experience of government shutdowns from the congressional side. Panetta left little to chance. Clinton's TV appearances were simple and carefully crafted statements. This most loquacious of Presidents disciplined himself to take no questions and give no off-the-cuff answers.

The presidential statements were devised to unite his party, rallying liberal Democrats by fighting on the chosen ground of Medicare and Medicaid and protecting the environment.

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