April 25, 2013

Bushes and Clintons together evoke unique bond, ongoing rivalry

By Ken Thomas / The Associated Press

DALLAS — Together on stage, the two families who have dominated American politics for the past two decades joined Thursday to pay tribute to the opening of George W. Bush's presidential center. Whether the families will have another act – in 2016 – was the unspoken subtext.

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Former President George W. Bush laughs as former President Bill Clinton speaks at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on Thursday in Dallas.

The Associated Press

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President George H.W. Bush, frail and seated in a wheel chair, beamed with pride, thanking the audience for honoring "our son." President Bill Clinton, who defeated the elder Bush 20 years ago, joked that he had become the "black sheep son" of the Bush family.

George W. Bush, standing before his gleaming new center, observed that it was the "first time in American history that parents have seen their son's presidential library." Bush said his father taught him "how to be a president. Before that he showed me how to be a man."

The dedication of the red-brick library on the campus of Southern Methodist University placed a spotlight on two of the nation's most prominent political families – and the prospect of another White House campaign involving them in 2016. Former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton accompanied her husband on stage while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sat in the audience with his wife, Columba.

Both are considering presidential bids in three years, moves that could create unprecedented dynasties – the first spouses to serve as president or the first brothers – and lead to a similar event at a future library a decade or more from now.

President Obama, who broke the 20-year string of either a Bush or Clinton in the Oval Office, thanked his predecessors, noting that the "world's most exclusive club" acted more like "a support group" of former presidents who help each other. Obama has his own back story with the families – he waged a long primary race against the former New York senator in 2008, campaigned vigorously against Bush's policies and then turned to the former first lady to run the State Department. When Obama needed a re-election boost last year, Bill Clinton was there to help.

Indeed, the White House has created a bond among the families, from George H.W. Bush, who presided over the end of the Cold War but watched his popularity fade, to Bill Clinton, whose "I feel your pain" message created a connection with Americans that survived impeachment. The younger Bush, who choked up at the end of his speech here, is remembered for a bullhorn speech amid the wreckage of the 9/11 attacks in New York that was followed by draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that left him unpopular.

"The presidents' club is small," said Mary Matalin, a longtime adviser to the Bush family. "Only presidents who have sat behind that desk in the Oval Office know the weight of it. There's just a bond there that nobody else can understand except for a handful of people who have done it."

The families first squared off in 1992, when George H.W. Bush ran for re-election and faced Bill Clinton and independent H. Ross Perot in a riveting campaign that took place as Bush's sky-high approval dwindled following the first Iraq war.

Clinton repeatedly questioned Bush's handling of the economy while the incumbent challenged the fitness for office of Clinton and running mate Al Gore, punctuated by Bush's claim that his English springer spaniel, Millie, knew more about foreign policy "than these two Bozos."

George W. Bush served as an aide to his father's re-election campaign, giving him a close-up view of his father's defeat – and plenty of reasons to dislike the opponent. But the harsh words quickly subsided.

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