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Clinton and Bush get chummy at joint event

Bush says of another potential Clinton-Bush matchup: "The first one didn't turn out too good."
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush shake hands during the launch of the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program in Washington, DC, September 8, 2014.
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush shake hands during the launch of the Presidential Leadership Scholars Program in Washington, DC, September 8, 2014.

The bonhomie was flowing between former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush Monday morning at an event to announce a new scholarship program run jointly by their presidential centers.

Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush was there in spirit, sending a lighthearted note urging his successors to keep their remarks brief at the event hosted by the Newseum in Washington, D.C. A potential future president, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also there, taking a seat in the back. She did not speak.

The scholarship program is aimed at leveraging the experience and resources of the former presidents to teach new generation of leaders, so the two former presidents discussed at length what they admired about the leadership style of other occupants of the Oval Office, including each other.

Clinton revealed that Bush would call him twice a year in the latter’s second term to talk casually for 30 to 45 minutes. “I felt good about that. I thought that was a really healthy thing,” Clinton said. He’s now become especially close with the elder bush, whom both former presidents praised movingly. The younger Bush has a new book coming out about his father next month. 

With two Clintons and two Bushes in the mix, the specter of dynasty and the 2016 presidential election loomed over the event, but only addressed once. The families have been close, but Hillary Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush are both considering runs, which could pit the clans against each other once again. 

Bush, who was relaxed and casual, joking as often as he was serious, said he was recently asked about the prospect of another Clinton-Bush matchup. “My answer was: The first one didn't turn out too good,” he joked he replied. Joshua Bolten, Bush’s former chief of staff who was moderating the discussion, quickly moved the conversation elsewhere.

At one point while Clinton was speaking on stage, a cell phone ring could be heard. The former president reached into his pocket to pulled out his device and silence it. “Only two people have this number, and I’m related to both of them,” he said, with his wife in the room. “I hope I’m not being told I’m about to become a premature grandfather.”

While Clinton has used his post-presidency to engage in global issues and remain on the public stage, Bush has led a relatively quiet life. “One of the things I've learned, maybe through my painting, is that I'm trying to leave something behind. Something to make the world a better place,” he said in a rare introspective moment.

Clinton, as is his style -- Bush called him an “awesome communicator” -- was more voluminous in his remarks. Both presidents were asked what they admired about each other and Clinton gave a lengthy response, praising his successor’s conviction and humility. Bush replied more briefly, praising Clinton's empathy and oratory skills.

"Is that enough? It was a lot shorter than your answer,” Bush said. Bolten assured him the answer was “equally powerful.” “Thank you, Josh, former chief of staff, I appreciate you saying that,” Bush replied sarcastically to laughter.

Clinton spoke about the need for compromise in politics, saying that he loved the film “Lincoln” and the Broadway show “All the Way” about LBJ because they both showed presidents getting things done, even when it sometimes required ugly dealmaking. “If you read the Constitution, it ought to be subtitled, let's make a deal,” he added.

Clinton said he hoped the new scholarship program would bring together leaders from various walks of life and in different sectors. For example, he hoped it would bring together tea party activists and community organizers in inner-city African-American or immigrant communities, who might find surprising common ground.

The program is a joint project of the presidential centers of George H.W. Bush, Clinton, George W. Bush, and Johnson, with support from private foundations. It’s a non-degree program for people who have already proven themselves and are ready to advance to another level. The board of advisors is made of alumni of both Clinton and Bush White Houses, as well as retired General Stanley McChrystal, the former Afghan War commander who was relieved by President Obama.

Finally, Bolten asked Bush if he had any advice for Clinton on becoming a grandfather. "Get ready also to be, like, the lowest person in the pecking order in your family," he replied warmly.