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An unexpected friendship in the ex-presidents' club

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 15, 2005


One stands pale and gaunt, his cheeks missing the chubby, rosy glow and exuberant vitality of his younger years, while the other, a stately and famously prudent octogenarian, stands less listless than he once seemed, as he leaps from planes like an X Games teen.

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Their differences, even those arising from the unpredictable changes of time, have always been quite stark. But now, as former presidents Bill Clinton and George Bush head the US relief efforts for the victims of December's tsunami, they have become the nation's most improbable duo, forging a relationship that has moved beyond polite public decorum and toward what many observers say is a surprisingly warm friendship.

Yes, they pal around at football games, give each other playful shoves after ceremonial appearances, and tease each other on the golf course. But not too long ago, these two traipsed across the country with contrasting alpha-male bravado, challenging each other with "Let's get it on!" in a bitter presidential campaign. And when Mr.

Clinton defeated the elder Bush in 1992, consigning him to a one-term presidency, the staid, New England patrician felt a crushing disappointment, the kind that takes a while to heal, and that only a former leader of the free world can know.

Yet now, as both must navigate the seldom-trodden path of a former US president, each having the time to feel the weight of his historical legacy, they may have found in each other a bond few could ever share.

"I think the friendship reflects the rather unique pressures on a president, and the feeling that only one who has had the burden can understand those pressures," says Thomas Schwartz, a presidential historian at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. "This personal bond seems to cut across the pressures of partisanship, although, truth be told, it hasn't happened very often in our history."

Other executive bonds

Indeed, of 20th-century presidents, only Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter are said to be friendly, though they keep this fairly private. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, bitter rivals during the founding of the country and throughout their successive presidencies, became very close friends after they left office, and wrote each other frequently until their deaths on the same day - July 4, 1826. Most other former presidents have kept their contact brief and ceremonial.

Still, some say the unique bond between the former presidents may be less about a warm friendship and more about their own self-interests.

"Both men recognize that a rising tide floats all ships," says Sam Waltz, head of a political consulting firm in Wilmington, Del. "That is, in the view of history, their warm cooperation likely will tend to raise the favorability with which history regards each man. Plus, men who have been in such an essential role at the center of power have difficulty with feeling irrelevant, and such newsmaking cooperation will put each of them back in the news on the relative merits of their relevance."

Their cooperation in raising funds for tsunami victims has also reprised many of the stark differences between the two men. Clinton is a natural empathizer, comfortable with feelings and emotions, while Mr. Bush often seems uncomfortable.