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Saturday, February 19, 2005

NYTimes > Presidents Bush and Clinton have become friends

Doug Mills
The New York Times
On Thursday night in Houston, Mr. Bush boarded an official blue-and-white Boeing 757 jet with "United States of America" on its side in Houston and flew to Los Angeles to pick up former President Bill Clinton.

By 10 o'clock, the two were headed toward Phuket, Thailand, to make their first appearance to help raise money for tsunami victims on Saturday afternoon local time.
From there, the former presidents were scheduled to visit Banda Aceh, Indonesia, on Sunday and Sri Lanka and the Maldives on Monday.
Neither of their wives, Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton nor Barbara Bush, were on the trip.
"It's just the two guys," Jean Becker, Mr. Bush's chief of staff, said.
Ms. Becker said before leaving on Thursday that she did not know where Mr. Bush or Mr. Clinton would sit on the plane, or whether they would have separate compartments, but that both would be up front.
"I know there are couches and beds, and they'll figure out the sleeping arrangements when they get on the plane," she said.
The trip is the most dramatic example in recent months of what staff members for both men describe as a growing friendship that seems to have erased the bitterness of the 1992 election, when Mr. Clinton ousted Mr. Bush from the White House.
When Mr. Clinton was in the hospital for quadruple bypass heart surgery last September, aides say, the 41st president was almost instantly on the telephone.
"President Bush immediately picked up the phone and said, 'Bill, what the hell happened to you?' " Ms. Becker recounted.
When Mr. Bush went to the dedication of Mr. Clinton's presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., with the current president and former President Jimmy Carter in November, the 41st and 42nd presidents talked at times with such familiarity that former staff members were taken aback.
"President Clinton was walking with all the presidents, and former President Bush says, 'Bill, what are you doing with this property back here?' " said Representative Rahm Emanuel, an Illinois Democrat was a top aide to Mr. Clinton. "It only sticks with me because it seemed so 'friendlike.' "
More recently, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton, whom President Bush appointed last month as his representatives in raising money for tsunami relief, were seen joking with each other as they sat side by side at the Super Bowl, where they had been invited by the National Football League.
Former staff members said the friendship could offer political advantages for the Bush and Clinton families, softening the edges of a political rivalry, as Mr. Bush's son begins his second term and as Mrs. Clinton considers a run for president in 2008.
Former staff members also said the friendship seemed genuine and was ultimately not that surprising given that there are only five men alive who know what it is like to go through the crucible of the American presidency. At the end of the day, the staff members said, partisan differences were overcome by the power of that shared experience.
"It has its own little Outward Bound quality to it," Mr. Emanuel said.
The new warmth arises as President Bush and Mr. Clinton, who had little love for each other in the past, have grown closer.
"Frankly, President Bush likes Clinton a lot," Roland Betts, a close friend of the president, said. "He says he thinks he's a terrific person. He's not judging his administration. He just likes being around him."
Mr. Betts, who made those remarks in an interview in December, added in a brief interview this week that in his view the current president and Mr. Clinton were charismatic people and that they "saw a little bit of themselves in each other, and they liked it."
Staff members for the three men say they first noticed the thaw last Memorial Day, when the 41st, 42nd and 43rd presidents, on stage after the dedication of the National World War II Memorial on the Mall in Washington, shared private laughs. At one point, George H. W. Bush gave Mr. Clinton a playful but vigorous shove as a reaction to something Mr. Clinton had said. Aides could not recall this past week what it was, but one person did say the current president joked at the time that Mr. Clinton's biography, "My Life," was so long that he would have to read one half and his father the other.
The warming trend continued a few weeks later, when the president unveiled Mr. Clinton's official portrait at the White House with such gracious words that aides said Mr. Clinton was stunned. Mr. Bush praised Mr. Clinton as a man "with far-ranging knowledge of public policy, a great compassion for people in need and the forward-looking spirit the Americans like in a president."
Mr. Clinton reddened and his eye teared as he acknowledged: "I had mixed feelings coming here today, and they were only confirmed by all those kind and generous things you've said. Made me feel like I was a pickle stepping into history."
By the time of Mr. Clinton's library dedication, he and the Bushes were falling over one another with accolades. But the 41st president spoke about the man who bested him in 1992 in personal and revealing terms.
"It always has to be said that Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times," Former President Bush said. "Trust me. I learned this the hard way."
Mr. Bush added that "seeing him out on the campaign trail, it was plain to see how he fed off the energy and the hopes and the aspirations of the American people."
"Simply put," Mr. Bush said, "he was a natural and he made it look easy. And, oh, how I hated him for that!"
Since being named tsunami relief envoys, they have appeared in public service advertisements and other appearances.
"In January," Ms. Becker said, "when we needed to get the two in the same city, it was: 'I'll come to your city.' 'No, I'll come to your city.' "
When they are together, she added, they joke about the 41st president's skydiving and which one is in the best health.
"President Bush likes to say, 'I'm 80, for God's sake,' " Ms. Becker said. "And President Clinton says, 'Well, you're the one jumping out of airplanes.' "





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