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The two ex-Presidents talk about the family business. Just don’t call it that.
Somewhere on this hot July day, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton are thumping each other over jobs and economic policy, but in a cool Dallas office, George W. Bush is sharing a sofa with Bill Clinton to talk about how to handle the 2016 race.
If you watch what they do, not just what they say, this conversation can offer clues to their unprecedented predicament. A populist prairie fire is burning across the campaign trail, on which fevered candidates delight in torching idols. The former Presidents, two Establishment icons, have just appeared together onstage at the Bush Presidential Center, cameras rolling, tweeters tweeting, in a celebration of postpartisan good works. Now they are talking to us, having posed for a portrait, and they have to know that it will make some heads explode to see them together on the cover of a magazine at the same moment when large numbers of voters are asking, Is America really so bereft of plausible candidates that for the ninth time in 10 presidential elections, a Clinton or a Bush may be on the ballot? Why call attention to their unlikely alliance now, as their loved ones prepare for combat that only one, and maybe neither, can win?
They know each other far better than you would expect, two baby boomer Presidents born six weeks apart in 1946 and yet reaching the White House from very different roads and governing from very different compass points. Their connection is 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 in the course of our conversation.
Like the phoenix with its healing powers, a divisive politician resurrected as an elder statesman can be a soothing presence, and the two of them together are even better than one. “I do believe that people yearn to see us both argue and agree,” Clinton says. … When the two men appear together in public, like at the NCAA basketball finals last year, the crowds cheer. “I think it lifts their spirits,” Bush says. “Most people expect that a Republican and Democrat couldn’t possibly get along in this day and age.”
So how do these two men behave in the coming months, when politics drives them apart and circumstance binds them together? Clinton and Bush, the Elvis and Prince Hal of American politics, finally have to pull up, step back and stay off the field. Neither one is exactly cut out to be a lion in winter: they are too young, too restless, too sure of their instincts. … But they will not take their eyes off the game, not for a minute.
At least for this stage of the journey, the Bush-Clinton interests are aligned: both families carry blessings and baggage; both pack Establishment clout and face an anti-dynastic revolt; both are fueled and funded by big and powerful interests; and both are navigating primary fields that are distorted by magnetic characters on the extremes. So there is a strategic advantage, and a protective cover, to reminding everyone that they know their way around the Oval Office, and know what’s feasible and what’s fantasy, as a field thick with unfamiliar candidates trades competing visions of the future.
Because it is tempting to dismiss everything politicians do as purely political, it is worth remembering that the Bush-Clinton bond reaches a long, winding ways back. It was by no means obvious that anyone from these two families could get along, especially after the hard-fought 1992 Bush vs. Clinton campaign. The thaw began with a grace note characteristic of George Herbert Walker Bush: a private letter left for Clinton as he took office: “You will be our President when you read this note,” he wrote. “I am rooting hard for you.”
The actual family friendship began more than a decade later, when the younger Bush sent Clinton and his father traveling the world together to raise relief funds, first for victims of the 2004 Asian tsunami, then Hurricane Katrina. Soon Clinton became a guest at the Bush home in Kennebunkport, Maine, playing golf, spending the night, hurtling the waves on Bush 41’s powerboat. After Clinton’s heart surgery in 2004, Bush 41 was on the phone checking up on him.
Bush left office with an approval rating roughly half as high as Clinton’s, and polls still rank him as the less popular of the two. But this summer, for the first time, more Americans like Bush than dislike him, according to a June CNN/ORC poll. And aides say he is more certain than ever that history will treat him well.
The minute they met up in Dallas, the ribbing began, from joking about going to prom together as they posed for photos for this story to tussling onstage at the ceremony for the scholars. They know each other’s moves well enough to pull back the curtain. At one point, Bush found himself talking about how important it is for a President to “find people who are capable of fighting through all the trappings of power and giving you good advice … and the environment is such that the sycophants aren’t allowed in.”
Then, almost reflexively, he stops himself. “I don’t know if that makes any sense. They told me to use some big words.”
At this, Clinton rolls his eyes, throws back his head and laughs. “This is the point where I reach in my back pocket to make sure my billfold’s still there,” he says, for he long ago concluded that Bush’s good-ol’-boy act is a means to an end.
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