October 31st, 2007

George Herbert Walker Bush, And How He Became a BFOB (Best Friend of Bill)

by Philip Baruth

Convention has always had it that when a modern American President leaves office, he remains more or less above the political fray. And in exchange, his poll numbers generally rise slowly but surely into the 60’s or 70’s. The ex-President functions the same way an aging King functions in a constitutional monarchy, then: not very often, not very politically, and not very well.

the two ex-presidents

But those conventions were built for older ex-Presidents, those who left office well into retirement age. What do you do when you’re comparatively young and comparatively politically obsessed, even by the standards of US Presidents?

You get your wife elected President.

As many have noted, Bill Clinton’s hands-on approach to his wife’s campaign is unprecedented, but in no way was it unpredictable. Hillary certainly had the drive, and Bill clearly has the fire in the belly even when it comes to a vicarious campaign. Giving up the ballot box as a measure of personal validation is never easy for a politician, but for Clinton it has been a tragic sort of exile.

But no more. Bill Clinton clearly views Hillary’s election as a de facto referendum on himself and his legacy, and in a very realistic sense it is. And in that narrow sense, Clinton is now back in the saddle, a man with something to prove on Election Day.

And here we come to the point of this speculation.

the two ex-presidents

Bill Clinton has known for at least the last handful of years, conservatively speaking, that his wife would be running for President in 2008, or 2012 if circumstances dictated. He’s known all along that her largest hurdle would be making a case to the 55% of Americans who consistently tell pollsters that they would prefer gall bladder surgery to voting for Hillary Clinton.

Consider his now famously fabulous relationship with George Herbert Walker Bush in this context: outreach to moderate Republicans. Sure, Bill Clinton has always gravitated to father figures; sure, he’s always made outreach to the other side of the aisle the measure of his personal charisma.

But ex-Presidents, to begin where we started, are extraordinarily savvy about where and when they risk their accumulated good will with the American people. Where they have their picture taken, to put it another way.

Now consider the veritable river of images that has been allowed to flow over the last five or six years, images of Bill and Poppy Bush, just two loveable ex-Commanders in Chief, out saving the world, picking up after tsunamis, making the visible case for bipartisan support in the wake of Katrina.

Golfing together, traveling together, working the commencement circuit in tandem.

the two ex-presidents

How many pictures have you seen of Bill and Jimmy Carter since Clinton left the White House?

But wait, you say, with W’s poll numbers so depressed, wouldn’t Clinton risk a lot by being seen with a Bush, any Bush? Not at all. Think about how the relationship is usually portrayed by the media: as a thorn in W’s side, somehow a repudiation of a son who’s strayed from the father’s will.

Does VDB think the entire friendship is staged? Not at all. Clinton has always needed validation from the other side of the aisle even more than from his own, and palling around with a Republican old enough to be his father is psychologically spot on.

But with Hillary’s election looming only a handful of years away, do you really believe the friendship would have been allowed to flower so very, very publicly if it didn’t actually help, in some way, shape or form?

Clinton is no Bob Dole, who commenced a public service campaign about erectile dysfunction just as his wife was launching a White House bid.

No, Bill knows what helps. That’s his magic.

the two ex-presidents

And given that successive Presidencies have overlapping needs — like delimiting access to Presidential papers, to take just one example — that friendship could be more useful going forward.

Lots more useful.