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Inside the Surprising Friendship Between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton

8 minute read
Gibbs, a former writer and editor in chief at TIME, is the director of the Shorenstein Center and the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Practice of Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. She is the co-author, along with Michael Duffy, of two best-selling presidential histories: The President’s Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity and The Preacher and the Presidents: Billy Graham in the White House.  

This article is an excerpt from The Presidents Club: Inside the World’s Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.

Through the ages, the Presidents Club has seen its share of rivalries, alliances, even some true friendships. But no relationship is quite like the bond between George H. W. Bush and the man who defeated him in 1992. The connection surprised both men, and astonished many of their longtime aides. Bush would go so far as to suggest more than once that he might be the father that the Bill Clinton had always lacked—a notion that the younger man did not dispute. And if the closeness of the relationship surprised people, so did its origin: it was Bush’s actual son who made it happen.

Fifty-eight minutes after midnight on December 26, 2004, a tremor erupted thirty miles below the surface in waters off the coast of Sumatra. When the waves came ashore hours later, parts of towns and cities—and their residents—along the coasts of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand were swept away.

The tsunami left more than 165,000 dead, tens of thousands missing, and millions homeless. The sheer number of corpses choked morgues and medical facilities and raised fears of famine and disease. Millions of dollars in aid pledges poured in from all over the world, including more than $350 million from the U.S. government. Back in Washington, George W. Bush and his advisors searched for an appropriate way to coordinate and direct the outpouring of aid from private sources, which would quickly dwarf anything governments could bring to bear. It was the president who came up with the idea of asking his two predecessors to work together. Both were proven fund-raisers in very different realms and both had world-class Rolodexes.

Bush and Clinton were described many times as the Oscar and Felix of American politics, one proper and prudent, the other all appetite and instinct. Clinton’s presidency tested the question of whether you could run the country like a series of all-night bull sessions while one of Bush’s favorite questions—what if we do nothing?—defined the best and worst of his presidency. Their hard-fought 1992 campaign had left scars. Clinton, then forty-six, made repeated reference to Bush’s age, and called the incumbent president “old.” Bush had called Clinton a “bozo,” and at one point suggested that his dog knew more about foreign policy than Clinton did. Bush assumed he was going to win right up to the end and when he lost, took the defeat hard.

But Bush the younger had good reason to think, ten years on, that the scars had healed. It helped that both men were now former presidents. At the opening of the Clinton library in Little Rock in November 2004, the elder Bush delivered gracious remarks about Clinton that delighted the huge crowd gathered in a driving rainstorm. “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.” Inside the museum, the two paired off: while touring the modern, glass-wrapped facility that overlooks the Arkansas River, Bush and Clinton got lost in conversation and fell far behind the main party of dignitaries. Bush 41 peered at one point outside a window and asked Clinton what he was going to do with all the empty property that lay fallow to the east of the library. When Clinton seemed uncertain, Bush urged him to think about making it his gravesite; and to decide soon, so that he could oversee arrangements for the media and crowds. It’s the kind of thing a president has to think about—or be reminded to think about by another president: your death, your funeral, your burial ground, is also a very public matter.

Within days after the Tsunami hit, 41 and 42 were in the West Wing with 43, getting their orders for what was supposed to be a fairly narrow assignment: tour the region, ask local governments for advice about how to target and deliver private aid, and then come back to the United States and get busy raising money. The White House put an Air Force Boeing 757 and a small team of State Department handlers at their disposal.

The two men worked virtually nonstop on their four-day swing through the region. Each man was greeted like a pasha at every stop, but in some places the crowds leaned toward the younger man. “If you’ve ever had an ego problem” Bush said later, “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.’ It was terrible.” Along the way, they rediscovered that they had been allies before they had become rivals: Clinton backed Bush early in his presidency on a variety of controversial education initiatives when other Democrats declined to help; Clinton recalled that Bush had hosted his family at Kennebunkport in the early 1980s and how, on one occasion, when three-year-old Chelsea explained that she had to go to the bathroom, Bush took the little girl by the hand and led her to the nearest loo. In midair, each man insisted the other guy take the lone bed. Bush slept in the state room while Clinton stayed up all night playing cards with Bush aide Jean Becker.

Clinton told friends that Bush made the alliance work, because the older man had to swallow his pride and embrace a former opponent. “He deserves far more credit than I do,” said Clinton. But it is also important to remember that post-presidencies have their own challenges; finding something appropriately challenging can be difficult. Raising money for a natural disaster was a job that approached in scale the size of things that used to keep them both up late at night. “You feel like you’re doing something bigger than your own political lives,” Bush said, “or bigger than your own self.”

The Buddy Movie

Once back in the States, the two men became an item. The club had, in its sixty-year history, no precedent for this public display of affection. They greeted fans together at the Super Bowl in January and they played golf with Greg Norman in a rainy charity tournament in March; the next day, Clinton checked himself into a New York hospital to remove scar tissue and fluid from around his left lung, and within hours his predecessor was on the phone checking up on him. How do you feel? What do your doctors say? Are you sore? How much can you exercise? Are you using your treadmill? Dr. Bush was back on the case a few weeks later when the White House asked 42 and 41 (as well as President Carter, who declined) to join Bush 43 on the Air Force One flight to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The senior Bush told Clinton not to worry, the pace would be manageable and, besides, there would be a doctor on board at all times. When Clinton told his own skeptical physicians he was making an overseas trip so soon after major surgery, he explained that his friend in Maine said everything would be okay.

The rest of the Bush family looked on with amusement. Barbara Bush began referring to the two men as “the odd couple.” Jeb Bush, the Florida governor, announced that he was going to refer to Clinton as “Bro.” And at the white-tie Gridiron Dinner in Washington that spring, Bush 43 joked about how Clinton, recovering from the March surgery, “woke up surrounded by his loved ones: Hillary, Chelsea . . . my Dad.”

Teaming up as they did in the middle of an ugly political era, the odd couple was a hit with the public. It had been a long time since Americans had actually seen politicians of different parties work together to achieve anything—much less two presidents—and then invite the rest of the country to join in the effort. Both men knew they were modeling an alternative method, in an age of partisan political cagefights. “I think people see George and me” Clinton observed, “and they say, ‘That is the way our country ought to work.’”

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