NEW YORK — 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.
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."
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.
"President Clinton and I were both so touched by this picture," Bush explained during a television interview, holding up a child's drawing. "A young girl drew this in Sri - where was it, yesterday? - in Sri Lanka ..."
"Thailand, yeah," Clinton corrected him, gently.
While in Sri Lanka, actually, their old campaign strengths and weaknesses came out at times. Once, as workers displayed a new water purification system, Clinton, full of curiosity for the most minute details, asked how the system worked, how much it cost to produce a gallon of water, and whether it could also be used in other desiccated third-world countries. Bush, on the other hand, looked on quietly. [Editor's note: The original version mistakenly included a reference to Bush that turns out to have been based on a faulty press report.]
But Bush, a veteran World War II pilot, was much more at ease on the flight decks of Navy ships and helicopters, which ferried both presidents in and out of the more devastated regions.
Though Clinton and Bush insist they have always liked each other, many feel the new, closer friendship began in the past year, after a series of events in which Bush's son, the current president, lavished praise on his predecessor. Especially notable was the unveiling of the Clintons' portraits in the White House last June.
"The years have done a lot to clarify the strengths of this man," George W. Bush said of Clinton. "As a candidate for any office, whether it be the state attorney general or the president, Bill Clinton showed incredible energy and great personal appeal. As a chief executive, he showed a far-ranging knowledge of public policy, a great compassion for people in need, and the forward-looking spirit the Americans like in a president." Later, after Bush paid tribute to Clinton's mother, Virginia Kelley, his words brought tears to Clinton's eyes.
Such praise continued in November, at the dedication of the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Ark.
And the warm tone even continued at last weekend's Gridiron dinner, an annual Washington "roast" attended by journalists and political leaders. There the younger Bush, noting that Clinton is recovering from another operation, said that he was surrounded by "loved ones," including his wife, daughter ... and "my dad." Laughter ensued.
But how long can such public displays last, given the possibility that Clinton's wife, Hillary, could face off against Bush's other son, Jeb, in the 2008 elections?
"Ex-presidents generally like to position themselves 'above the fray' in their retirement," says John Samples, director of the Center for Representative Government at the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. "Their partisan activities are often muted, and they apparently believe [this] adds to their historical stature.
"My guess would be that Clinton will continue to do this sort of thing until around Labor Day of 2006," he continues. "Thereafter, his wife's effort to become presidential will demand he enter the fray and take up again the weapons of the partisan."