DALLAS – Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton have built a friendship that could almost be developed into a Seth Rogen buddy comedy. And even with another family clash brewing, they weren’t afraid to be chummy in public Thursday night onstage at Bush’s presidential library.
“Do something every day. Some day of all of us, it’ll be our last day,” Clinton mused, giving advice to the graduates of a joint leadership program they founded together.
Bush took the mic, and, with his trademark wry humor, shot back. “I was struck on that ‘someday may be your last day’ line. I thought that was pretty damn profound,” he said to laughter.
But their differences simmered right beneath the surface, and so did the looking potential conflict between 42’s wife and 43’s brother. The occasion marked the first time the two have appeared since Clinton’s wife Hillary and Bush’s brother Jeb announced they were running for president – and could be the last before the election in 2016.
“I know Jeb. And I’m confident that Secretary Hillary will elevate the discourse,” former President Bush said. “I can’t attest to their surrogates. But I can attest to this surrogate: I’m not going to be a surrogate!”
President Clinton was more direct: “I know who I want to win,” he said.
Other than that one exchange, both men largely steered clear of mentions of the 2016 race. Still, the tension between the legacies that each left behind — legacies that will define both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton’s campaigns, whether they want them to or not – was on clear display.
The country would benefit “if we get a good immigration reform, which you tried to do,” Clinton said, patting Bush’s arm. Bush didn’t seem to react.
And when the conversation turned to how each makes difficult decisions, especially in times of war, the contrast was even sharper.
When his national security team was discussing whether to “bomb somebody,” Clinton said, “I always said, ‘can I kill ‘em tomorrow?’” If the answer was yes, Clinton said, he would put it off—a reflection in some ways of the relative peace and prosperity that marked the decade during which he served in the White House.
That response seemed to drive Bush to take a more sober tone. “Sometimes the circumstance made it really imperative that you decide and decide decisively,” said the president who led the country through the Sept. 11 attacks and launched wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, two of the longest-running conflicts in American history. “I had to make decisions that had to protect the homeland.”
All in all, though, the two men acted as though they were the only two members in a very exclusive retirement home for former members of the Oval Office.