Clinton and Bush Share Stage — and Mutual Admiration
By Leigh Ann Williams / Toronto and Michael Duffy / Washington Saturday, May. 30, 2009
Former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush (C) and Bill Clinton (R) meet at an event in Toronto hosted by TD Bank Financial Group.
TD Bank Financial Group / Reuters
That was how former President George W. Bush greeted a crowd of 5,000 Friday evening in Toronto who had paid a few hundred dollars to hear Bush and fellow former leader of the free world Bill Clinton share their experiences — and perhaps their differences — as commander-in-chief.
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But if they paid that money in the hopes of witnessing a partisan, post-presidential throwdown, they would be sorely disappointed.
"You think this is the 21st century version of the Roman coliseum and you expect President Bush and I to attempt to devour each other," Clinton said, adding, "we will do our best to thwart them."
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Thwart them they did. For the most part, the two men, who have been friendly for a couple of years now, traded stories and compliments, part of predictable duet of regard and respect that comes from having occupied the most difficult job on earth.
Bush said that leaving the White House was like going from "100 miles an hour to zero."
"A fellow walked up and said,'Hey, has anybody ever told you look like George W. Bush?' I said, 'It happens all the time.' He said, 'It sure must make you mad.'"
Even walking his dog Barney in his Dallas neighborhood is a clear mark of the change in Bush's lifestyle. "We're walking down the street and the little fella' sees this unbelievably manicured garden, and there I was, former President, with a plastic bag on my hand, picking up that which I had dodged for eight solid years."
Clinton, whose own life has undergone an unexpected course correction now that his wife is America's top diplomat, admitted to being in something of a straight-jacket for the first time in years.
"The great thing about not being President any more is that I can say whatever I want," Clinton said. "Of course, nobody really cares what I say. But now I have the worst of all worlds. My wife has become Secretary of State, so no one cares what I say unless I mess up."
Joined by moderator Frank McKenna, a former politician who once served as Canada's ambassador to the U.S. and currently a deputy chair of Toronto Dominion Financial Group (which sponsored the event), the two men — Bush in a dark suit, Clinton in a light suit — sat in overstuffed green armchairs on a stage, separated by a small table. Guests paid between $200 and $2,500 to attend. A few hundred protesters gathered outside the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Most of the anger was reserved for Bush, but the largest banner treated them equally: "Bush & Clinton: War Criminals Not Welcome in Toronto."
Bush and Clinton, former governors of contiguous states, have been friendly for nearly five years. Bush tapped Clinton and his own father, former President George H.W. Bush, to lead US rescue efforts of the deadly Asian Tsunami in late 2004. The two baby boomers bonded during the April 2005 flight from Washington to Rome when both attended the funeral of Pope John Paul II. They grew closer when Clinton and Bush's father, who have also become close, teamed up again to oversee private relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina later that year.
Clinton has quietly been advising Bush about how to restart his life after the Presidency since before Bush left office. And Clinton has called Bush in Texas in recent months to check up on him.
Bush said that Clinton has shared the stage so often with his father in recent years that when he told his mother that he and Clinton would do a joint event together she said Clinton was now "like a son to her." Turning to Clinton with a smile, he said, "So, brother, it's good to see you."
It was one big mutual admiration society on the stage Friday. Bush praised the work of Clinton's foundation, and Clinton praised Bush's work to increase funding for HIV/AIDS care.
"My foundation works on climate change and to bring affordable AIDS care and malaria care to people throughout the world in areas that have high incidence of that," Clinton said. "And I must say that has been much easier because of the phenomenal increase in funding from the United States government that President Bush achieved when he was in office. I think that is one of his most important achievements as President," Clinton said, later giving particular credit to Bush's ability to gain the support of Christian Evangelical groups.
When asked whether the war in Iraq distracted American attention from the war in Afghanistan, Clinton acknowledged that he had spoken publicly about his differences of opinion on the matter before — something that at the time annoyed the then current President Bush — but that it was an inherently difficult situation. He said he supported the Congressional resolution giving Bush the power to go to war if Saddam Hussein defied UN inspectors, but would have wanted Hans Blix's team to have more time to search for weapons. However, he said he believed in focusing on the present rather than the past, and attention must now focus on how to help Afghanistan and promote stability in Pakistan. "I still think it is an enterprise that can be salvaged," he said.
For his part, Bush dismissed the assumption in the question. "I don't buy the premise that our attention was distracted. I think it is false. As a matter of fact I know it is false. I was there. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein made the world a more peaceful place."
Bush was asked about President Barack Obama's moves to normalize relations with Cuba. "I didn't appreciate it when my predecessors criticized me," he said, with an unspoken shout-out to his partner on stage, adding he didn't want to criticize Obama.
Noting that Cuba imprisons political dissenters, he said his view was that Cuba would have to "empty its prisons and give the people a voice" before the U.S. should change its strategy toward the country. Clinton pointed out, respectfully, that the U.S. deals with other countries, such as China, that have policies the U.S. finds objectionable.