Kearney: Politics aside, unity at Bush Library refreshing


Ryan Kearney, Columnist

When it comes to presidents, there are few who I would rank below George W. Bush. From Iraq to the financial crash and everything in between, his presidency was largely a series of profound screw-ups that we are still paying for today.

Given this less-than-stellar review of Bush’s record, I expected myself to greet the opening of his namesake presidential library with some degree of derision. Yet in watching Thursday’s opening ceremony, which was attended by all five living presidents and their wives, I was struck by the incredible display of unity on display.

Former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and the younger Bush, as well as President Barack Obama, all come from wildly different backgrounds, governed in very different circumstances. They have often had profound political differences or rivalries with one another. Despite these gaps, though, all are united by the shared experience of serving as president, an experience that gives them a unique understanding of the incredible challenges they have all faced. The bonds these five men share are remarkable in an age of intense partisan battles, and they are an encouraging sign that political differences can be bridged in the act of public service.

In seeing the ease with which the collection of presidents got along, and in hearing the gracious words that all had for the younger Bush in celebrating the opening of his library, it is obvious that each one of these men has a deep respect for the others, despite many of them having profoundly differing policy positions or histories filled with bitter partisan wars. The elder Bush, for example, ran with former President Ronald Reagan in 1980, defeating President Carter’s reelection campaign and prematurely killing his political career. Bush’s presidency was then put to an end when he was unseated by Clinton in 1992 in a particularly brutal three-way race with Ross Perot. Eight years later, the younger Bush ran a campaign based on “restoring honor and dignity to the White House,” a none-too-subtle shot at Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinksy. Obama ran first against former first lady Hillary Clinton in a bitter contest for the 2008 Democratic nomination, and then ran a general election campaign that was fundamentally opposed to the entire Bush era.

Given this acrimony-filled history and the brutal competitive nature of politics, it is remarkable that these men can even be in the same room together, let alone forge meaningful bonds with one another. Yet this is precisely what has happened, as each one who steps up to serve as president has gained an understanding of just how tough the job is, which has led all to an appreciation of their predecessors’ leadership.

The collaborations among the presidents have come in many forms. Clinton and the elder Bush, in particular, have moved beyond the 1992 campaign to form a genuine friendship and worked together with their Clinton Bush Haiti Fund to help rebuild that devastated nation. Clinton and Obama, after having a rocky start to their relationship in the midst of his tough race against Hillary, have also grown quite close, as evidenced by Clinton’s very active role on Obama’s behalf during his 2012 re-election campaign. And Obama and the younger Bush appear to be on good terms, which is somewhat remarkable given that Obama has used the record of the Bush administration as a weapon against the last two Republican tickets. In his speech on Thursday, Obama hailed Bush as a “good man” and a strong and compassionate leader, a compliment that he seemed to genuinely mean.

All of these examples of inter-party presidential friendships, friendships that were on full display as these five first couples mingled at the Bush library, are an encouraging sign that it is still possible to have genuine political differences while maintaining good personal relationships. The sheer level of class that each president has displayed by forging bonds with fellow leaders and working with them, regardless of past bitter campaigns, is a shining example of what is good about politics and public service. Many in Washington, where “compromise” is often treated as a dirty word and the tiniest issues are turned into profound debates on the role of government, would be wise to look to Thursday’s presidential reunion. If Carter, Clinton and Obama can praise the good parts of the younger Bush’s tenure in office and highlight his decency as a human being, then anything is possible in politics, and there is no bridge that cannot be built between opponents.

Ryan Kearney is a Communication sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you want to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].