Just Friends

Newt and Hillary pose on the Capitol steps showing a teasing delight in each other’s company as they back, together, a new health-care scheme. John McCain and Hillary pose laughing with reporters and showing bipartisan closeness as they leave together on a fact-finding trip to Alaska. I saw the latter picture yesterday on the news, remembered the former, and thought of a conversation with a group of conservatives from throughout the country a few weeks ago.

The subject turned to the growing friendship between the Bush seniors and Bill Clinton. They had famously bonded big-time during their tsunami fund-raising efforts, and Barbara Bush is reported now to call Mr. Clinton “son.” Mr. Clinton has been up to Kennebunkport this summer to play golf with his fellow former president, go boating, and have a private dinner.

In our conversation someone called the growing chumminess “creepy” and asked what I thought of it. I said I found it creepy too. What, I was asked, did I think was behind it? Why are Mr. Bush senior and Mr. Clinton so publicly embracing each other, yukking it up for the cameras and complimenting each other?

Because it serves their individual needs and interests, I said. They both get real benefit out of it while appearing to be ignoring their own interests. That’s a great twofer.

*   *   *

What does Democrat Bill Clinton get out of cultivating the Republican Bushes? He gets public approval from a man most of the country sees as personally upstanding. When Mr. Bush puts his arm around Mr. Clinton, he confers his rectitude. Democrats won’t mind it, and independent voters will like it. In receiving the embrace of the patriarch of such a famously Republican family, Mr. Clinton looks like someone who is, by definition, nonradical, mainstream, not too unacceptably odd and grifter-ish. Big bonus: Mr. Clinton knows that when he receives Mr. Bush’s affectionate approval, his wife, who will soon be running for president, also seems by extension to be receiving it. This is good for her. Both Clintons pick up some positive attention from on-the-ground Republicans. This is good too.

What does the elder Mr. Bush get out of it? He burnishes his reputation for personal generosity and a certain above-it-all nonpartisanship. He shows he’s not narrow like a conservative, but national like a great leader. This has a spillover effect on his son, the incumbent president. The more his father embraces the foe, the more embracing the current President Bush looks. By publicly declaring his closeness with Mr. Clinton, Mr. Bush senior demonstrates a high minded interest in political comity and a rejection of mere party politics, unlike the low little people who are inspired by animus and always getting het up about their little issues. Would a former president Pat Buchanan hug a former president Clinton? Huh, go dream.

So Mr. Clinton does it because it’s good for himself and for his wife’s prospects. Mr. Bush does it because it’s good for himself and his son.

Are their motives purely selfish? No, just mostly. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton are in their own ways men of sentiment and emotion. In the old British phrase, they’re both wets. Neither was driven unvaryingly in his political life by deep philosophical conviction. Both operated within a philosophical reality; they were surrounded by and supported by those with a philosophy, and each tried always to get to what was practical and polled well. Both like to like people; they enjoy admitting they’re softies. Both no doubt share the view that a great democracy cannot operate in a healthy manner when the members of its political parties hate each other. Both feel some attachment to the kind of beyond-mere-partisanship sentiments that are pleasing to one’s inner David Broder. And both have been presidents. They know what the job is and share the bond of having been there.

*   *   *

But they’re missing something, I think. It is the kind of reserve coupled with an eschewal of the merely petty demonstrated by the old pros of the past. Eisenhower supported JFK after the Bay of Pigs, but without the creepy yukking it up, and in a way that put the emphasis on the importance of the presidency and not the sweetness of Ike. The old soldier stood with the unsteady junior officer who’d been duly elected, and said he supported the president’s leadership. He didn’t hug him, smooch, or call him ducky. He didn’t suggest he found him personally endearing. As far back as Adams and Jefferson that was the style: public support where possible, privately expressed grumbling here and there, and, at the end, when it was possible, private declarations of appreciation, respect and affection. The historians found it, in the letters. They didn’t write each other subtly self-serving love letters in the national newspapers. And they could have.

They were serious men who stood for serious things. And they had serious supporters who were not to be trifled with.

What bothers me about the fervid friendship of the Bushes and Mr. Clinton—and the media celebration of it—is the faint whiff of superiority, a sense they radiate that all those slightly icky little people running around wailing about issues—tax reform, the relation of the individual to the state, the necessary character of a president—and working the precincts are somehow . . . a little below them. There is an air of condescension toward that grubby thing, belief. Those who hold it are not elevated, don’t quite fit into the high-minded nonpartisan brotherhood. When in fact the people doing the day-to-day work of democracy, and who are in it because they are impelled by deep belief and philosophy, are actually not below them at all, and perhaps above them. Not that they’re on the cover of People hugging, but at least they’re serious.

It is the suggestion, or the suspicion, that these men have grown close because they are not serious, were never quite serious, that grates. That makes one wonder. That leaves some Republicans, and I have to assume more than a few Democrats, scratching their heads when they see Newt smiling with Hillary, and John McCain giggling with Hillary. It leaves you wondering: Why are these people laughing?