When Bill Clinton and George W. Bush announced a project jointly sponsored by their presidential libraries, news coverage focused on the style, not the substance, of the event.
The Wall Street Journal said the two ex-presidents “could have been mistaken for a comedy routine.” The Associated Press reported that they “shared laughs and a buddy-like banter.”
But behind the banter was a serious message. Their libraries – along with those devoted to Lyndon Johnson and George Bush 41 – are starting a leadership training program that is more needed than ever. As Clinton and Bush made clear, part of their mission is to demonstrate that Washington does not have to be a cesspool of toxic partisanship.
By their presence and performance, they embodied a key dimension of effective leadership. They showed that political rivals do not have to be personal enemies. In fact, they can actually like each other, trust each other, cooperate with each other.
And they can do so while disagreeing on basic issues. As Clinton noted, the Founding Fathers “never said our job was to agree on everything.” The Founders did say, however, that leaders were obligated to make a genuine effort to bridge their differences and find workable solutions.
The “test of democracy” Clinton noted was the ability of rivals to find a compromise “that enables the country to keep moving forward.” As the 42nd president put it, “If you read the Constitution, it ought to be subtitled: ‘Let’s make a deal.’”
Yes, it’s a lot easier for retired politicians to make friends than it is for battlefield commanders. And yes, their comments were hardly earth-shaking. We’ve heard it all before.
But the ex-presidents were making a point that demands to be heard. This Congress will set records for being both unproductive and unpopular. According to the website Real Clear Politics, the average favorability score for Congress is 13.8 percent.
That’s abysmal. But we’re surprised it’s that high. And we say that about an institution we deeply revere.
Republican and Democratic leaders on the Hill clearly despise each other. House Speaker John Boehner and President Obama tried, and repeatedly failed, to reach deals on issues like the budget. Now they’ve simply given up. Washington resembles a World War I battlefield, with both sides dug deeply into their own trenches. The frontline barely moves, but the casualty rate keeps climbing.
There’s growing evidence that these leaders are reflecting the attitudes of their constituents. An extensive survey by the Pew Research Center reveals that America increasingly resembles a European system, with two ideological parties – one liberal, one conservative – that consider their opponents not only wrong, but dangerous.
“Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades,” Pew reported.
Two vitally important traditions – progressive Northern Republicans and moderate Southern Democrats – have all but disappeared. And as their ranks have dwindled, the gulf between the parties has widened.
Pew reports that 27 percent of all Democrats now think Republicans “are a threat to the nation’s well-being”; 36 percent of Republicans feel that way about Democrats.
That’s why the Bill and George Show was so refreshing. Asked what they learned from each other, Clinton praised Bush for working with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts liberal, on education reform. They made “kind of an interesting couple,” he cracked, the sort of legislative partners who work across party lines that hardly exist today.
Bush lauded Clinton as an “awesome communicator” who was able to work with Republicans on issues like welfare reform. And during Bush’s tenure, Clinton revealed, the president would call his predecessor on a regular basis and ask for his advice.
“It meant a lot to me,” Clinton said.
It meant a lot to the country as well. Bush’s gesture highlights the loss of a skill that “we are beginning to see atrophy in America,” Clinton noted: the ability to listen to dissenting voices.
“We have made so much progress,” he said. “We are less racist, sexist and homophobic than we used to be, but we don’t want to spend time around anyone who doesn’t agree with us.”
These two men have ample reason to dislike each other. Clinton defeated Bush’s father; Bush defeated Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore. Yet they remain loyal to a larger goal: the good of the country. The health of democracy.
If their libraries can teach that to young leaders, they will make an enormously valuable contribution.
Email Steve and Cokie Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org.