A meeting of America's most exclusive trade union

Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton had a rare Oval Office reunion this week to push for permanent normal trade relations with China.

Weddings and funerals. Those are the only times many extended families get together.

For the small club of American presidents, it's not much different. Just change "weddings" to "presidential library dedications," and that about sums up the two main occasions for Oval Office reunions.

Which is why the appearance of Presidents Ford, Carter, and Clinton at the White House this week was a departure from the norm, though it's happened once before.

Both ex-commanders in chief were back under the familiar chandeliers of the East Room to help convince a skeptical Congress to grant permanent normal trade status to China. The last time they gathered in this room was 1993, also for the cause of trade (the North American Free Trade Agreement). But back then, former President George Bush made it a foursome.

This time, he couldn't come due to a "scheduling conflict" (a paid speech at a convention, and lunch with the Houston Astros). He did, however, join the others in a letter of support, and even held a press conference in his living room on it.

Still, baseball over free trade with a billion-plus people? Some analysts assume campaign politics prevented his appearance, which illustrates one reason why presidents don't get together very often.

"There usually aren't that many issues where you have bipartisan support," says Marlin Fitzwater, former press secretary to both Presidents Reagan and Bush.

It's dicey, assembling the nation's most exclusive trade union. There are egos involved, political rivalries, bad histories.

In 1993, Mr. Fitzwater unsuccessfully tried to get all five presidents to appear on CNN's "Larry King Live." Former President Nixon initiated an informal agreement with his colleagues not to meet except at one another's library dedications.

More than most presidents, Clinton has proved adept at using the ex-club as lobbyists, says Richard Norton Smith, director of the Ford library. He's called on them to help push trade, the chemical-weapons treaty, and the ban on assault weapons. Carter, Ford, and Bush all showed for his summit on volunteerism in 1997.

But while presidents rarely gather for reunions, some do form special relationships. A notable one is between Carter and Ford, who squared off in the 1976 presidential election. Their close friendship dates from their long flight to the funeral of Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat in 1981, says Mr. Smith. Since then, they've supported one another's programs and observed overseas elections together.

It's reminiscent of another famous presidential friendship, between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. After a severe falling-out, the two later began an intimate correspondence, touching on everything from politics to religion to issues of aging.

Says Smith: "People who go through the crucible of the American presidency have a lot in common, and I think as they get older and the partisan passions cool, what it is they have in common takes center stage."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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