The relationship between George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton has had its ups and downs — you know, your typical unease between rival American political dynasties. In his new biography of George H.W. Bush, “Destiny and Power,” Jon Meacham recounts this evolution, and includes a dead-on Bush impersonation of Clinton, combining his know-it-all smarts and personal magnetism.
Early on, Bush did not think much of the man trying to succeed him in the Oval Office. “The American people are never going to elect a person of Bill Clinton’s character,” Bush told a White House staffer during the 1992 campaign, according to Meacham’s book, later expressing shock that a “draft dodger” had defeated him. But after the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, the two men joined to raise money for relief efforts, and their rapport improved immensely.
“Bush was dazzled by Clinton’s gifts of gregariousness and charisma; Clinton sought Bush’s fatherly approval and, given his historical imagination, enjoyed the company of the embodiment of the fading order of Cold War statesmanship,” Meacham writes. They performed a sort of odd-couple routine: Bush was always on time to events, while Clinton arrived late, burst in and captivated crowds.
“He talks all the time,” Bush told Meacham. “He knows every subject. You mention Nigeria, and he’ll say, ‘Now let me tell you about what’s happening in the northern part of the country.’ I don’t know how much of it’s bullshit and how much of it’s real, factual. . . . He’s just shameless. But outgoing and gregarious. I like the man.” And Meacham recounts a moment when Bush parodied a typical Clinton conversation with local officials during their tsunami relief travels:
Does this purification system use reverse osmosis? This is diesel-driven, isn’t it? I remember the hurricane damage I saw in Xland, or this reminds me of my trip to the Sudan, or I used to love to watch the kids singing in Ulan Bator. Boy, you haven’t seen a wedding til you’ve seen one in Swaziland.
“These are made up examples,” Bush continued, “but the point is on every subject on every place he went on about his own experiences. I do think people were fascinated.”
At one point in Sri Lanka, Bush was ready to depart from a dinner with the country’s president, but Clinton stopped to talk to other guests on the way out. Bush tried to signal to him, but nothing worked. When they finally left, Clinton said, “George, you owe me big time for getting us out of there a lot earlier than expected.” Bush was virtually speechless, he recalled: “I thanked him profusely. And I said nothing more. You cannot get mad at the guy.”
Clinton, meanwhile, has been gushing in his praise for Bush. “I love George Bush,” he said in a 2006 public appearance featuring both men. “I do.”
The rapprochement does not necessarily include Hillary Clinton, Meacham reports. “I don’t feel close to Hillary at all,” Bush told the author, “but I do to Bill, and I can’t read their relationship even today.”
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