For one brief, shining moment, there was unity in American politics.
Politics was left at the door. No red and no blue. Indeed, it was all red, white and blue.
On this day, the main attraction were not men who led political parties, but men who were leaders of our country: spanning 36 years and two centuries.
Against all predictions, frogs did not rain down from the sky as President Obama finally found something positive to say about his immediate predecessor, though rumor had it that medical staff were on stand-by at MSNBC should their hosts be seized by apoplexy at POTUS’ apparent apostasy.
Jimmy Carter, always playing the scold, started his remarkable tribute to 43′s Africa policy successes by talking about the disputed 2000 election.
Bill Clinton, still a rogue, rambled and went off-script, as he is wont to do. But his words were measured, warm and authentic. He genuinely likes the Bushes personally, probably in equal measure to his opposition to their politics. When Clinton left the podium, a microphone picked up 43 saying, “Thanks bud.”
And there was 41,the sentimental star of the library opening. Frail, but filled with fortitude, his comments were heartfelt and brief. Indeed, yesterday’s festivities might never have been possible, but for his own achievements.
Props go out to the crowd of 10,000 as well, many of whom campaigned for or served President(s) Bush for a generation. Political differences were set aside yesterday as the three Democratic presidents in attendance were recipients of genuine respect and applause as men who had held the nation’s highest office. President Bush should have been so lucky when he appeared on the dais for President Obama’s inauguration in 2009.
Looking back, there haven’t been five living presidents at the same event since 1994, when then-President Clinton and former presidents Bush, Reagan, Ford and Carter attended the funeral of Richard Nixon.
Such historic gatherings can crystallize historical ironies.
Consider that it was Nixon who sent George HW Bush to China as the American emissary, paving the way for Bush’s move to the CIA and eventual, national prominence. It was Nixon’s policies that formed much of the Reagan’s conservative critique of expanded government and détente within the Republican party, as Reagan himself toyed with running against Nixon in ’68. It was Ford’s pardon and Nixon’s Watergate legacy that made the Carter presidency possible. Bill Clinton ran the McGovern campaign in Texas, trying to unseat Nixon, while First Lady Hillary Clinton worked for the House Judiciary Committee that considered Nixon’s impeachment.
And so it was yesterday.
It was George HW Bush who used the Carter presidency as a foil in his successful run for president in 1988. It was the upstart governor of Arkansas who jumped into the fray when other, more experienced Democrats took a pass, to take on the “unbeatable” Bush and deny him a second term. George W. Bush’s campaign in 2000 thematically focused on restoring honor and dignity to the Oval Office, an unspoken nod to 41′s loss as much as Clintonian scandals, and his own, first-hand view of the defeat in ’92. And it was Barack Obama who bested the Clinton machine and who managed to run against George W. Bush through four years in office and two presidential elections, despite 43′s name never being on the ballot.
Without Nixon, there may never have been Carter. Without Bush 41, there may never have been Obama. As unique as each of these men are, history is the mistress that has conspired to make their rise improbably dependent on others in their most exclusive club.
It is humbling.
And more surprises may still be store for the families that make up our President’s Club in attendance yesterday.
Hillary Clinton, only months out of office as Secretary of State, looked remarkably rested and refreshed. A next-generation of Democrats are waiting in the wings, their presidential aspirations at the mercy of a Hillary ’16 campaign.
On the Republican side, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been taking the ritual, early steps toward a possible presidential run. Like Hillary and the Democrats, he is the one person in the GOP with the name recognition, financial reach and political network to put a scare into the competition. His final decision may rest much on the state of his brother’s legacy as Mrs. Clinton’s will on that of her husband’s and President Obama’s.
Barbara Bush, wife of 41, weighed in on this ongoing dynastic dynamic, noting that there were other good families should be given a chance to hold the presidency. But for junkies, a Bush-Clinton race would be the ultimate catnip. Despite the obvious reconciliation between Bill Clinton and 41, a Hillary-Jeb race in ’16 would relitigate ’92 for partisans of both sides, confirming the results or repudiating them in a family re-match.
For now, that is so much gossip.
Yesterday was about history.
Our common purpose amid diverse opinion. The promise of tomorrow, no matter who leads today.
It was a good day to be an American.