In a gathering of presidents, a model for Washington

Five current and past US presidents met Thursday for the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library The conviviality and civility should set a standard for politicians.

AP Photo
President Barack Obama stands with former presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas April 2.

Few nations of the world would be able to witness an event like the one that occurred in Dallas on Thursday. Five current and past presidents of the United States gathered like old friends to praise one of their own.

President Obama and Presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush were on hand to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

No politics of personal destruction. No mudslinging. All civility.

The meeting was a rare event of Oval Office veterans. The last such gathering of five presidents was for the dedication of the Reagan Presidential Library in 1991. This one was notable by their common desire to focus on what one president did right and his favorable qualities.

“To know the man is to like the man,” Mr. Obama spoke of Mr. Bush. “He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”

Mr. Carter, a strong critic of Bush, commended him for his successes in Sudan and in fighting AIDS. “I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth.”

But more than the likability or the triumphs of Bush II, this historic conclave of three Democratic and two Republican presidents served as a reminder of how a democracy both defines political differences and can also heal them – if enough politicians exhibit charity, respect, and perhaps even friendship toward those with opposing views.

A 2011 Pew poll found that more Americans admire politicians who don’t compromise than admiring those who do. Even worse, the splintering of media sources has created echo chambers for people to get news and views that fit their preconceptions.

Meanwhile, hardened partisanship and political intolerance have risen in Washington. Each party has rigged the democratic process to create safe seats. Many incumbents wage “permanent campaigns” fueled by special-interest money.

The best way to break this cold gridlock is to have more informal occasions in which elected leaders come in close contact and establish relationships of personal trust. Only then can each side’s principled arguments find the soft ground of real listening and bring about serious consideration of alternative perspectives.

This isn’t nostalgia for any good ol’ days in politics. As Marcus Daniel wrote in his 2009 book, “Scandal and Civility,” political life in the US after the American Revolution “was tempestuous, fiercely partisan, and highly personal.”

And the great constitutionalist, James Madison, even warned in 1787: “A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points ... have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to cooperate for their common good.”

All the more, in today’s hurried, wired, and weary world, should politicians who work for the common good see the common good in each other.

Many recent presidents, either as candidates or once in office, have called for civility and open hearts. Bush the younger promised to be a “uniter, not a divider.” Obama suggested that political discourse be done with “friendship, civility, hospitality, and especially love.” In recent weeks, he has changed his own behavior to have meals with leading Republicans.

And now, for a brief time in Dallas, Americans saw how once-fierce rivals revealed a bond over their common experiences in the White House. At least two of them, Clinton and the elder Bush, have become quite close.

The country’s future depends on how well its political leaders work on the quality of their relationships.

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