TD Bank Financial Group - Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton appeared together Friday for the first time as Frank McKenna, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States, moderated a talk on global affairs in Toronto. The two were paid $150,000 each.
Not a bad payday.
May 30, 2009
Bush-Clinton Policy Talk Strikes a Congenial Tone
By JIM RUTENBERG
TORONTO — Former President Bill Clinton really misses the presidency. “All of a sudden nobody plays a song,” he told an audience here on Friday, referring to “Hail to the Chief,” the anthem played at presidential events.
Former President George W. Bush hardly misses it at all. “Free at last,” he proclaimed before the same crowd at the Metro Toronto Convention Center. “I like being in Texas, and I do not miss the spotlight.”
But that was practically where the differences stopped as the two former presidents appeared for the first time on a stage together to discuss national and international policy. Each earned more than an estimated $150,000 for the appearance.
Some 6,000 people — or their corporate employers — paid from $200 to $2,500 to attend the event, a rare chance to see two former presidents, who served in succession, square off from opposite sides of the political spectrum.
What they got instead, while no less historic, was a glimpse of the strange-bedfellows-for-the-moment friendship between the two men, once bitter rivals.
Mr. Clinton made it clear from the start that he would avoid any major clashes with Mr. Bush, telling the crowd that the agreed-upon moderator, Frank McKenna, the former Canadian ambassador to the United States, would try to meet their expectations by turning the convention hall into a gladiators’ coliseum, but “we’ll do our best to thwart them.”
And as they settled into overstuffed chairs, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton became something of an ex-presidents’ support group, avoiding direct critiques of each other, or, for that matter, their future club member, President Obama (“I want you to understand that anything I say is not to be critical of my successor,” Mr. Bush said, “there are plenty of critics in American society.”)
When Mr. Clinton said one of his biggest regrets was the lack of United States action during the mass killings in Rwanda, saying “I have no defense,” Mr. Bush responded, “I think you’re being a little tough on yourself.” He added that Mr. Clinton’s lament that he should have sent troops ignored the fact that such deployments are not so simply done.
When Mr. Bush, in response to a question from Mr. McKenna — who shared his question topics with the former presidents beforehand — defended his policy toward the Darfur region of Sudan, Mr. Clinton got his back, in return. “I think he did about all he could do,” he said.
When Mr. McKenna raised the issue of Mr. Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy dealing with gay men and lesbians in the military, Mr. Bush said, “President Clinton handled it the right way.”
Mr. Clinton, however, said he no longer supported the policy and said his views on same-sex marriage, which he has opposed, were evolving.
And the two men had slightly different views on the trade embargo on Cuba. Mr. Bush made clear, gently, that he is less open to the opening of relations than Mr. Obama, and Mr. Clinton said he wanted to believe better relations were possible, joking that his view was “more like that of the current secretary of state,” his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
If there was anything that even bordered on a sharp exchange, it was the discussion over Iraq.
Mr. Clinton said he would have preferred for Mr. Bush to have given weapons inspectors more time in Iraq before invading and, in the meantime, “concentrated on Afghanistan.”
Mr. Bush said, with a hint of irritation, “I don’t buy the premise that our attention was distracted,” a rejection of the argument that the Iraq war came at the expense of progress in Afghanistan. Neither war was popular with the hundreds of protesters outside the center, though most of their vitriol was directed at Mr. Bush.
Afterward, even audience members who said they were awed by the experience of watching two former United States presidents on stage at the same time expressed surprise at the level of congeniality.
Indeed, though rarely reported upon, relations between the two men had begun to thaw significantly midway through Mr. Bush’s second term, after Mr. Bush teamed up Mr. Clinton and his father, the first President George Bush, on relief efforts after the tsunami in Asia and then, Hurricane Katrina.
Aides to Mr. Bush said he warmed to Mr. Clinton as his predecessor formed an affectionate bond with his father.
Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, offered frequent advice, sneaking into the White House for a secret lunch as early as 2007 to discuss Mr. Bush’s postpresidential plans.
Peter Baker contributed reporting.