Monday, May. 08, 2006

Bill Clinton & George H.W. Bush

Can anyone recall a more unlikely partnership than that of George Herbert Walker Bush and William Jefferson Clinton? One grew up in Greenwich, Conn., where his father was a U.S. Senator. The other hails from Hope, Ark., where his father was a rambler. One was known for his discretion, the other for his lack thereof. One has a son in the Oval Office; the other has a wife with an eye on the job. In a family in which nicknames mean something, it fell to Barbara Bush to give them theirs: the Odd Couple.

But by joining forces, Bush, 81, and Clinton, 59, have done remarkable and lasting work in the past year. After teaming together to lead the U.S. response to the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, they suited up again last fall to raise money to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. They put their dormant fund-raising networks on high alert and in eight months have collected more than $120 million for Gulf Coast colleges and universities, churches, and for use by the Governors of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. Next week the two men plan to deliver a joint commencement address to the graduating class at Tulane and announce their final $30 million in grants.

Two other back-to-back Presidents, John Adams (No. 2) and Thomas Jefferson (No. 3), needed a decade to repair the personal damage from their ferocious political battles; it took Nos. 41 and 42 just a few years. Not long ago, Bush tried to surprise Clinton with a visit to his friend's office in New York City's Harlem; when Bush arrived, he found Clinton was overseas. So Bush sat down in his successor's office, put his feet up and called him on the phone. "Bill! It's George. Nice view! Nice desk!"

The partnership has its advantages, as well as its limits, for both clans. And the two men still have their differences. But Bush and Clinton have created a new postpresidential brand and put it to work sealing the cracks between public need and public aid — and reminded us of what people can accomplish even in an era of deep partisan division.