“This is the way our country ought to work.”
Note: This piece was originally created by The Village Square and published on respectandrebellion.com
The Unlikely Friendship Between Presidents Bill Clinton and the George Bush(es)
If you were to come up with two names most demonized in politics today, you’d be hard pressed to find any with more historic animosity than “Bush” or “Clinton.” Maybe that brings up some feelings for you too? Would it surprise you to find out that there's some pretty deep affection running between members of these families?
That’s not how it started.
During their presidential campaign against each other, Bill Clinton (then forty-six) frequently mentioned President George H.W. Bush's age - calling the incumbent president “old Bush.” Bush also once called Clinton a “bozo,” and at one point suggested that his dog knew more about foreign policy than Clinton did. Bush was confident enough in his re-election, that when he lost - it was especially hard on him.
And yet, when former President George H.W. Bush left the White House in January 1993, he left a note for his successor, “Dear Bill,” he began. “When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.”
“I wish you great happiness here,” Bush wrote. “I never felt the loneliness some presidents have described. There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I’m not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course."
Underlining “our”, he added: “You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you."
“Good Luck, George.”
The younger Bush later spoke of how influential that moment was on him: his father’s grace in defeat, and Clinton’s humility in victory - reflecting, “I think it starts with Bill Clinton being a person who refused to lord his victory over Dad. In other words, he was humble in victory, which is very important in dealing with other people.” How it grew. Though the relationship between President Bush Sr. and President Bill Clinton had been respectful since that time, it didn’t blossom until 2004 when a major disaster had hit the world in the Indian Ocean Tsunami. In a brainstorm about how to raise funds, when President George W. Bush asked his chief of staff, “Do you think they’d work together?”
He went ahead and asked his father and Bill Clinton to spearhead fundraising for the victims of the tsunami. And that’s when the story gets good. As Clinton told 60 Minutes:
So, we’re flying over there. There’s one bed and he made this suggestion that we split the time in the bed. And I said, no we’re not going to do that, you go sleep in the bed … I can lean up against the wall and sleep, I’ll be fine, I can sleep on the floor.
This gesture, “somehow … broke the ice,” said Clinton – adding, “We were like two people circling each other wanting to reach out and shake hands and somehow the darn bed thing was the handshake.”
Bush remembered the moment this way: “He wouldn’t take the bedroom on the Air Force plane. I said, ‘no, come on, you go in there, and I’ll take the next leg.’ ‘No, no,’ he said.” He added, “That means something to me. I’m older, and it was a very great courtesy.”
Even Barbara Bush later remembered the moment during a C-SPAN interview, "George told me Bill insisted he stay in the bed, and Bill insisted that he was taken care of, and that was really nice.”
It was more than just a single moment that made a difference, though – as they got to be involved in something meaningful together: “You feel like you’re doing something bigger than your own political lives,” Bush said, “or bigger than your own self.” Clinton later remembered how during the trip, "When we met with children who lost their parents in the tsunami, [George] was moved almost to tears when they gave us drawings they'd made to capture their pain and slow recovery.”
And when they teamed up to do something about it, they were good at it - especially together! What was their secret to raising so many millions of dollars? As reported afterwards:
Many of the checks came from people who attached notes making clear that in part they had been moved to give by the sight of the former rivals joining force. One man who worked closely with the effort said, “they were able to get the attention of people in the U.S. who didn’t give money to problems overseas before. Even my mother said, if these two could come together, she would find $100.
These experiences left a mark on both men, as it began to show up in their warm public comments about each other. President H.W. Bush said, “It has to be said that Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times. Believe me, I learned that the hard way. He made it look too easy and oh, how I hated him for that.”
Bush also joked about the trip, “If you’ve ever had an ego problem, don’t travel with President Clinton to the Maldives. It was like traveling with a rock star: ‘Get out of the way, will you? Clinton’s coming.’”
They teamed up again the following year to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. When asked to speak together at Tulane's graduation the year after, Clinton recollected seeing Bush’s “genuine feeling for the students, many of whom had suffered in the flooding of New Orleans, and others who had shown heroism and love in caring for their neighbors.”
Not Just a Political Show
When Bush Senior invited Clinton out to visit the family home in Maine for the first time, his wife “looked askance” at the idea of Clinton coming. But she ended up so fond of him, she asked him to come again. Clinton himself joked about the speedboat Bush Senior took him out on, “he drove like a bat out of hell.”
Former First Lady Barbara Bush reflected in a 2014 interview, "Bill's father wasn't around...And I think that he thinks of George a little bit like the father he didn't have, and he's very loving to him. And I really appreciate that."
After Clinton’s surgery to remove scar tissue around his lung in 2004, George Bush was on the phone checking up on him: "What do your doctors say? Are you sore? How much can you exercise? Are you using your treadmill?”
Speaking of the connection, Clinton reflected, “He befriended me. It’s been one of the great joys of my life, my friendship with him.”
After the death of the man he beat for the White House, Bill Clinton said, “I just loved him.” And Barbara Bush said herself, "I love Bill Clinton. Maybe not his politics, but I love Bill Clinton."
After Barbara Bush passed away, the Clintons likewise wrote heartfelt tributes to her:
Barbara Bush was a remarkable woman. She had grit, grace, brains and beauty. She was fierce and feisty in support of her family and friends, her country and her causes. She showed us what an honest, vibrant, full life looks like. Hillary and I mourn her passing and bless her memory.
Those Socks (or, the trick of connecting over something else)
Thomas Jefferson famously invited people to his house for dinner and a conversation he directed away from controversial pain-points. This seems to be a key for all vibrant relationships across the divide - find other things to talk about too! When Clinton would visit the family home, Barbara Bush admitted they didn't talk much politics. Why would you get into that when you can gab about speed boat racing, golf, and family?
Even something simple will do. In 2013 Clinton shared a photo of himself with Bush in Maine and remarked that he is "envious" of his fellow former president's "sockswag" - referring to the former President's animated sock collection. While catching up with former President George H.W. Bush on one home visit, Clinton gifted his predecessor -- known for sporting trendy footwear -- three pairs of colorfully patterned socks. This video captures more of this moment.
They Can Do It...Why Can't We?
So what happens when two people model this kind of friendship? Well, it might just be infectious. Clinton has also become friends with Bush's son, former President George W. Bush.
“Now, why do I have a friendship with him?” the younger Bush said. “Well, because he’s called ‘a brother with a different mother.’ He hangs out in Maine more than I do.”
Clinton and the younger Bush reflected on their friendship while speaking. From the moment they met up at one event together, the joking began – including joking about going to prom together as they posed for photos. The genuineness of their relationship was highlighted in a Time article where the journalists remarked on a connection “visible in the body language, the mutual mockery of each other’s set pieces and shticks, the way they tease and praise and even protect each other” during the interview.
Speaking of his friendship with Bush Jr., Clinton told one interviewer “I do believe that people yearn to see us both argue and agree.” And in another interview, Clinton acknowledged that Americans like to air our differences, “Because they know we have got to have an honest debate to come to a good answer.” Then he added, “But then they also think that debate ought to have limits to it.” He added that lately, “we’ve gotten into thinking that people we have disagreements with are people we have to despise or demonize” – a way of thinking that has “kept us from solving a lot of problems and doing a lot of things we could have done otherwise. So I think people see George and me, and they say, ‘this is the way our country ought to work.’
When Bush and Clinton appeared together at a NCAA basketball final game, the crowd cheered wildly. Bush reflected, “I think it lifts their spirits. Most people expect that a Republican and Democrat couldn’t possibly get along in this day and age.”
When asked if he has tried painting Clinton, Bush (an amateur artist) pretends to be serious. “I’ve tried and tried and tried.” Then he confesses: “No, I haven’t. I don’t want to ruin friendships.” “He can’t get my bulbous nose right,” Clinton deadpans.
A Final Tribute
Clinton made his last visit with Bush senior a few months before he passed, at the family home in Kennebunkport, where Bush was "surrounded by his family but clearly missing" wife Barbara, who passed away earlier this year. After Bush Senior passed away, Clinton wrote in a Washington Post op-ed “He was an honorable, gracious and decent man who believed in the United States, our Constitution, our institutions and our shared future. “And he believed in his duty to defend and strengthen them, in victory and defeat,” Clinton added.
“He also had a natural humanity, always hoping with all his heart that others' journeys would include some of the joy that his family, his service and his adventures gave him.” His daughter Chelsea posted this photo:
Despite their political differences, Clinton underscored that “His friendship has been one of the great gifts of my life"— adding, "I cherished every opportunity I had to learn and laugh with him.” He concluded:
We should all give thanks for George H.W. Bush's long, good life and honor it by searching, as he always did, for the most American way forward. Given what politics looks like in America and around the world today, it’s easy to sigh and say George H.W. Bush belonged to an era that is gone and never coming back – where our opponents are not our enemies, where we are open to different ideas and changing our minds, where facts matter and where our devotion to our children’s future leads to honest compromise and shared progress.“I know what he would say: ‘Nonsense. It’s your duty to get that America back.’"
— The Village Square’s Respect + Rebellion
Respect + Rebellion stories are written by colleagues (and now real-life friends) Dr. Jacob Hess (right) and Liz Joyner (center left). Jacob is the author of "You're Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You're Still Wrong) Conversations between a Devoted Conservative and a Die-Hard Liberal" and editor of Public Square Magazine. Liz is the Founder & President of The Village Square, a unique community-based model to heal the political divide, where you’ll find many odd couples friendships.
This piece was reviewed and edited by managing editor Henry A. Brechter.