PHILADELPHIA — Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush, would-be opponents in the 2016 race to return one of their families to the White House, shared a stage here Tuesday evening and basked in a mood of bipartisan bonhomie.
The former Republican governor of Florida celebrated Clinton’s commitment to public service as she received the 2013 Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia.
“Hillary and I come from different political parties, and we disagree about a few things, but we do agree on the wisdom of the American people — especially those in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina,” said Bush, who is chairman of the National Constitution Center.
“In fact, I think Secretary Clinton might be in Des Moines next week,” he added, joking. “Now, don’t actually wear the medal there, Madam Secretary.”
For a full hour Tuesday night, Philadelphia’s Independence Mall became the scene of a glowing and, at times, gauzy tribute to the former secretary of state. A series of documentary-style videos led the crowd on a tour of her long career — from her childhood in Park Ridge, Ill., to coming of age at Wellesley College to breaking barriers at the Rose Law Firm in Arkansas, not to mention her time as a U.S. senator and as America’s top diplomat.
As with many Clinton appearances these days, the possibility that she may run for president again in 2016 hung over the event. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania and chair of the committee that selected Clinton for the Liberty Medal, noted her excitement about someday seeing “the first woman president of the United States.”
Moments later, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (D) said, “I fully expect that she will break another barrier in four years and she will be the first First Lady to walk back into the White House in her own right as president of the United States of America.”
Once the medal was placed around her neck, Clinton took to the podium and called on Americans to become more active participants in politics.
The patriots who met at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, she said, “knew that in a democracy, citizens cannot sit on the sidelines, that we have to get into ‘the arena,’ as Teddy Roosevelt called it, and participate in the debates that shape our country’s future. Now, sometimes it can get pretty noisy, but that is the American way.”
But Clinton also decried the partisan acrimony in Washington, saying that “when we let partisanship override citizenship, when we fail to make progress on the challenges facing our people here at home, our standing in the world suffers.”
Clinton made a brief mention of President Obama’s address to the nation, repeating the language she first used Monday in support of Obama’s push for a military strike in Syria. The debate over Syria, she said, “is good for our democracy.”
“As our founders knew, fervent arguments are the lifeblood of self-government,” she said. “How could a republic last if citizens had no opinions about the issues of the day or were too intimidated to express them?”
As Clinton spoke, a handful of demonstrators nearby could be heard protesting her appearance. Some held signs referring to Clinton’s handling of the deadly attack on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. One sign read, “People died, Hillary lied.”
Bush’s role in the ceremony has drawn attention from some conservative commentators, who have admonished him for bestowing an honor on Clinton a day before the one-year anniversary of the Benghazi attacks.
When the event was announced in June, talk radio host Rush Limbaugh said on his show, “You see a story like this and you say, ‘What in the name of Sam Hill?’
“It’s bad enough the woman is getting this award . . . and then to find out that someone who is touted as a Republican presidential candidate is going to be presenting it to her because he runs this organization.”
In her speech, Clinton made no reference to the Benghazi attacks, although she did honor the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, recalling how she toured Lower Manhattan as a senator from New York. “It was like a scene out of Dante’s ‘Inferno,’ ” she said.
Clinton noted that this was not the first time a Clinton and a Bush had shared this stage. In 2006, former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton were jointly awarded the Liberty Medal in recognition of their charitable work after Hurricane Katrina and the South Asian tsunami.
Hillary Clinton said “41 and 42,” as they call themselves, have become a political odd couple. She noted that Barbara Bush sometimes calls Bill Clinton her “adopted black-sheep son.”
“Jeb and I are not just renewing an American tradition of bipartisanship,” Clinton said. “We’re keeping up a family tradition as well.”