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Bill Clinton, the Bush Buddy

President Bush Meets With Former Presidents George Bush And Bill Clinton
President Bush with former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton in the Oval Office on Tuesday.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

Here’s a vividly ironic, and deeply symbolic, political moment: On the very day Bill Clinton was being embraced, almost literally, by father and son Bushes at the White House, Republicans were pushing through the Senate an anti-bankruptcy measure that corporate America has dearly wanted — and that Clinton vetoed as he was leaving office five years ago.

No wonder the Bushes, who play for the deepest of keeps, love having Clinton around. The former president has become the family’s favorite hunting trophy, a symbol of their (and the GOP’s) successful, decades-long rise to power. 

I imagine it’s tough, even for Clinton’s enemies, to hate the guy anymore. His “you-can’t-catch-me” cockiness is gone, but the effortless charm remains. Among baby boomers of all persuasions (including, I think, George W. Bush) the sense exists, perhaps grows more vivid, that Bill Clinton somehow embodies us all. It IS a long, strange trip, and Clinton’s well-worn visage is proof. White House aides say that, behind closed doors and up close, he looked hale enough the other day, his color good and his steps sure. Maybe so, but I saw him at the same distance a few weeks ago at an event in the Capitol, and he looked awful: Lincoln-thin, his big hands hanging limp at his sides, his face a pallid mask. A man who, for better or worse, was the very definition of unbridled vigor has been humbled. And so, of course, have we all.

Doctors say that Clinton’s lung-maintenance procedure is routine, and everyone hopes they are right. In the meantime, his latest White House drop-by prompts questions. Chief among them: Why the “Bill and the Bushes” alliance?

Benefits for the Bushes
For the Bushes, the benefits are clear. The Bush administration is one of the most relentlessly partisan in modern history. They didn’t invent the take-no-prisoners approach to politics, they just perfected it. Now they are facing a Democratic minority in the Congress (and much of the country) that has decided to answer in kind. While Bush’s GOP allies and conservative grass-roots groups attack furiously, the president himself can appear above the fray, laughing it up with the most successful Democratic office-seeker since FDR.

Bush can also use the proximity of Clinton to raise doubts about whether the angry and leftward-drifting Democratic leadership really speaks for the party. Clinton, after all, rose to power as leader of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. While the Democrats debate their future, and their ideological orientation, Bush is allying himself with the DLC faction. Indeed, he has cited DLC positions (the group at one point expressed interest in privately financed Social Security accounts, for example) as justification for his own proposals.

Clinton was a divisive figure, but he remains the most popular figure in the party, and his intimate, personal style created thousands of people who still think of themselves as Friends of Bill. A lot FOBs are Big Money people who aren’t particularly comfortable in a Democratic Party now chaired by Howard Dean. Bush’s not-too-subtle message: Bill’s my buddy, come with me. Some did in 2004.

What's in it for Bill?
What does Clinton get out of it? A form of acceptance, of course. He was the first modern president to be impeached and came this close (a different speech by Sen. Joe Lieberman) to being convicted. For a man who yearns for approval, the need to return to good graces has got to be overwhelming. First and foremost fraternity guys, the Bushes recognized need — and its uses. They tapped Clinton for their own little Skull and Bones. There can be no more eager pledge.

Clinton didn’t build an ideological legacy. Indeed, he didn’t build the Democratic Party. His politics and strategy from the start were situational, designed to allow him to tack to the White House against rising conservative trade winds. His political legacy was about his personality; rebuilding it is personal, too.

Assuming his health improves, Clinton is going to need a globe-trotting job to do beyond tsunami relief. U.N. secretary-general is out; no American has gotten that job, or ever will. Bono has the World Bank sewn up, of course. Seriously, if Clinton wants a global mission, and he does, the Bushes can get it for him. I’m not sure they wouldn’t mind turning over the Middle East diplomatic portfolio to him. He knows the history; indeed, he has helped shape it.

One other Clinton factor: Hillary. A couple of her close friends and advisers tell me that they (and presumably she) are delighted at the former president’s role as Bush Buddy. It puts him above (or at least outside of) the intramural Democratic fray. More important, from their point of view, it gives the Clinton Clan an aura of non-partisanship at a time when Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s chief task is to emphasize her own centrist political roots. She can win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 as a liberal but probably can’t win the White House that way. Bush Buddy Bill is her personal counterweight, proof that she can see the entire panorama of the political landscape.

Who knows? By 2009 the Bushes and Clintons could be together at the White House again — with Hillary as hostess.