The Benefits of Being an Ex-President

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"Come on," George H. W. Bush cajoled Bill Clinton, who hesitated for a split second about being on the U.S. delegation to the funeral of Pope John Paul II. "It will be better if you are along."

Now, that's like a parent talking to a son, and Bush may have been right when he mused out loud awhile back that "maybe I'm the father he never had." Bush, 80, was among the first to call Clinton, 58, when his heart troubles became known. Down at the Clinton Presidential Library dedication he worried about Clinton's wan look and counseled him privately to go easy on the travel. On a flight to the tsunami-hit regions of Asia, Bush tried to get Clinton, not long from heart by-pass surgery, to take the lone bed on the Air Force plane. Clinton insisted seniority determine who got the bunk.

In a few days the two will meet to tape more appeals for help for the tsunami's victims. In the fall they will perform at Texas A & M and in all probability later in Little Rock. They are an odd couple, morphed by world events and the astute hand of President George W. Bush into a new pair of celestial buddies after a decade of intense political rivalry. There may be more rivalry to come with Hillary rising like a rocket. But for now they are going about the world's good work (and the interests of their Presidential libraries) showing unity in helping with devastation from the tsunami and in sorrow and devotion at the funeral of the Pope.

The absence of Jimmy Carter, 80, at the Pope's funeral brought out the usual political accusations of snubbery but in fact Carter was asked twice to go and decided, perhaps in one of his quaint bouts of political pique, not to join the delegation. Carter lobbied the world both in the Clinton and the elder Bush presidencies and again in George W's time against U.S. policy, which did upset all three Presidents. (They complained a little bit among themselves in Rome.) But the Clinton and the Bushes are forgiving people and would have locked arms and marched off in harmony as a threesome, the world's most exclusive fraternity. Jerry Ford was asked to go but at 91 he has ruled out long jet hops.

While these players seem increasingly drawn together on big issues, there are still little things that give them their individuality. Clinton likes to schmooze with the crowds, which produces his famed tardiness and brings a benign impatience to the always punctual Bushes. Clinton's excessive volubility sometimes drives Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice around the bend. But President George H. W. chuckles and says, "Suits me. I don't have to do any talking." All of this drew attention to the new celebrity of the ex's on the world screen. Bigger than rock stars, more influential than television anchor people, when any combination of the former Presidents takes the stage it has huge impact in global politics; free trade, AIDS awareness, terrorism alert. The number of requests for appearances and endorsements now flood all their offices, and a subterranean network of staffers has sprung up so they can brush off imposters who falsely claim one of the other members has signed on to some cause.

Over the years there have been proposals to make former Presidents honorary Senate members, or set up a formal committee with regular meetings, their advice to be tapped by the sitting President. Bad ideas, for the most part. Political rivals at that level don't want the advice of the others. But world media has changed what was never legislated.

Television spectacles inspired by funerals or weddings or natural catastrophe are staged with increasing frequency. These Presidential stars will continue to shine, and when in Washington they soon may have some exclusive overnight digs next to Blair House, across from the White House. Funds are being raised for what will be called Trowbridge House, after William P. Trowbrige, the original builder in 1861. The house, hooked up to Blair House services, will be at the ready for former Presidents.

Meantime, the media is keeping a close eye on these fragile but game new stars. A few weeks ago the Atlanta Constitution ran a lengthy piece on the Carter-Ford relationship, with Carter proclaiming , "I don't know of any basic philosophical differences between me and President Ford ...Our friendship is warm and enduring." The passage of time obviously increases understanding. Carter and Clinton both criticized Ford for pardoning Nixon in 1974; now both say Ford was right. Secretly, the Bush people chortle that Clinton on many issues has become a Republican.

A few days ago a reporter phoned the Ford office in Palm Desert, California, inquiring if it was true that President Ford was on death's door. "He's out playing golf," nonchalantly explained a staff member, who gets such queries with regularity. In fact, being President and even an ex-President is obviously very good for one's health.