Monday

October 23rd, 2017

Insight

Bill Clinton and George Bush pal up

Dana Milbank

By Dana Milbank

Published Sept. 10, 2014

Now it can be told: Bill Clinton was a secret adviser to George W. Bush.

"He used to call me twice a year in his second term, just to talk," the 42nd president disclosed Monday, with the 43rd president at his side. The two would talk "somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes, for several years," Clinton continued. "... Never talked about it in public. We talked about everything in the wide world. He asked my opinion."

The prevailing opinion expressed by the two men at their joint appearance at the Newseum was that they really, really like each other. These representatives of America's rival political dynasties spent years blaming each other's leadership for the nation's ills, but now they have come together to profess mutual, and long-standing, admiration.

Josh Bolten, the former Bush White House chief of staff who moderated the event, instructed each to say what he liked about the other's leadership.

Clinton, up first, went on at characteristic length about Bush's partnership with Ted Kennedy, his knack for being underestimated and his courageous determination to do "what he thought was right" regardless of the politics. Clinton said he "learned a lot" from Bush and watched his "clarity and decisiveness with great admiration." He even defended Bush for his famous assertion that he doesn't "do nuance."

After 3 1/2-minutes, it was Bush's turn. "There's a lot to admire about Bill Clinton," he began. "I think, first of all, he's an awesome communicator." Bush tried to stretch his answer out ("You, too, have got great empathy. ...You, too, made tough decisions.") but ran out of steam after about 90 seconds. "And so, um, yeah — is that enough?" he asked. "That was a lot shorter than your answer."

"You don't do nuance," Clinton reminded him.

The two men were true to type: Clinton was meandering, while Bush's answers were simple. (Asked to comment on Lyndon Johnson, Bush remarked that "he was a big guy.") But the old foes seemed to be enjoying their banter. If they don't genuinely like each other, they fake it well. "George" and "Bill," as they called each other, wore matching blue ties and crossed their legs in identical fashion, shared manly handshakes and occasionally put a hand on each other's arm as they performed their routine.

"We were laughing about going to restaurants and having to spend our time taking selfies with people," Clinton told the audience.

"At least they are still asking," Bush quipped.

Bush spoke of the time the two men were asked at an earlier appearance together about "another Clinton-Bush matchup. My answer was the first one didn't turn out too good."

The kibitzing was interrupted at one point by a melodic ringtone from Clinton's cellphone. "I hope I'm not being told I'm about to become a premature grandfather," Clinton said, silencing the ring.

"That would make national news," observed Bush, who later offered his former rival some grandfathering advice.

The two men are on opposite sides of most issues, and though they have worked together on Haiti, their relationship, at least in public, hasn't been as close as Clinton's has been with Bush's father. But at the Newseum, the two men demonstrated their solidarity on matters of great priority — such as promoting Bush's forthcoming book on his father, the 41st president.

"I thought you were going to promote my book," Bush told the moderator, then did the work himself. "... This book I'm writing — marketing, now — which I think will be out November 11th, it's a love story."

Bolten took the hint. "Available November 11th, $16.80 on Amazon.com," he said.

Bush raised his thumb to indicate a higher price.

Clinton, joining the telethon, volunteered that he was "one of the non-right-wingers" who read George W.'s memoir. "It was a heck of a book."

The event was to launch a joint leadership-development program by the presidential centers of Clinton, LBJ and both Bushes. Clinton said the "presidential leadership scholars" program would be, in part, about rebuilding "the skill that we are beginning to see atrophy in America, which is listening to people who disagree with us." Clinton said he would like to get people talking about the need to compromise. "If you read the Constitution, it ought to be subtitled 'Let's Make a Deal,' " he said.

Restoring the role of compromise is a big task — but perhaps not impossible, if these old warriors have become as friendly as they claim. "I admire my pal's ability to communicate and to lead," affirmed Bush, playfully calling Clinton a "beautiful man — beautiful."

"I will say one thing nice about my friend here," Clinton returned, then amended his statement. "I will say more than one thing."

And he did.

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Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation's capital.

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