The former Presidents open up to TIME

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Earlier this month in New Orleans, after announcing $90 million in hurricane-recovery grants, George Bush and Bill Clinton sat down for their first joint print interview, with TIME's Michael Duffy, who covered both Presidents when they were in office. The two men were in a good mood, referring and deferring to each other throughout the 30-minute session and recalling a joint adventure on the high seas. Here are some excerpts:

TIME Your partnership struck a chord with the American people this year. How come?

BUSH Some people don't expect that if you run against each other, you then could ever work together again or be friends. But in my case, it's something that's very easy. Bill's gone out of his way to make me feel comfortable in this work together. On the plane to [the] tsunami [region], he wouldn't take the bedroom on the Air Force plane. I said, "No, come on, you go in there, and I'll take the next leg." "No, no," he said. I guess he wanted to play cards all night. But nevertheless, that means something to me. I'm older, and it was a very great courtesy. So the relationship is fun for me. And you have this feeling of doing something important, doing something bigger than ourselves.

CLINTON Americans like politics; they like debate. They like us to air our differences, because they know we have got to have an honest debate to come to a good answer. But then they also think that debate ought to have limits to it. And I think they believe that for more than 20 years, we've gotten into thinking that people we have disagreements with are people we have to despise or demonize. They think that in turn it has had a boomerang effect on our country. It's kept us from solving a lot of problems and doing a lot of things we could have done otherwise. So I think people see George and me, and they say, "This is the way our country ought to work." But like President Bush said, it's fun for us. I always liked him, and it's been really fun. I've been honored to do it.

TIME What is the one thing you've seen in the other man that perhaps you didn't expect to find?

BUSH President Clinton has shown a certain deference to me based perhaps on me being the older guy. And I appreciate that. It's something I've seen firsthand many times, in very subtle ways, like today, walking in, "You go first." That kind of stuff. We come from an old line, my family, kind of courteous kind of guys, and this means something to me. It's not just social niceties. There are many ways he makes me feel that this is a two-way street and that he's enjoying it.

There will be differences. He's still active. He's still a guy who's going to be in the political arena, and so there will be differences between him and certain members of my family, but that can be handled. It doesn't have to interfere or ruin our personal relationship.

CLINTON The interesting thing is his son is the President and my wife is a Senator--

BUSH [Half-joking] I'd like to speak to you about that in the future.

CLINTON--and we made this work anyway. It's been a joy. I even like the arguments we have.

TIME Like what?

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