Two for the road

February 22, 2005

IN THE MUCH-neglected category of good news, please include the traveling road show of ex-presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Their weekend tour of tsunami-devastated South Asia was an excellent use of the talents of two elder statesmen, which may have benefited each of them along with their cause.

The former Republican president and the Democrat who ousted him from the White House used their celebrity to remind the world that the need for aid in the wake of that horrifying natural disaster is huge and will remain so for many years.

They talked with survivors in Thailand, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Banda Aceh, Indonesia. At each stop, they held press conferences reported all over the world. Together they worked the Sunday talk shows that were beneath their station as chief executives.

One third of all American households have contributed to tsunami relief so far, partly because of the appeals of these two. The former presidents have been charged by the current commander in chief to keep the spigots flowing as reconstruction gets underway.

On a personal level, the Poppy and Bill partnership is intriguing because the two men have never been particularly close. Mr. Bush, who picked up the nickname Poppy in childhood, was broken-hearted at his loss to Mr. Clinton in 1992. But he was far angrier at criticisms of his son leveled by Mr. Clinton during George W. Bush's 2000 campaign against Clinton Vice President Al Gore.

For his part, Mr. Clinton considered himself the victim of a ruthless campaign of personal destruction intended to aid the Bushes, if not necessarily directed by them.

Those wounds seem well on the way to healing now, thanks to time and the graciousness displayed by both former presidents at the dedication of Mr. Clinton's library last year.

As bipartisan ambassadors, the former presidents signal the strength of American democracy and unity at a time when it isn't always so apparent at home.

Ex-presidents wandering the world can sometimes be a mixed blessing for incumbents. But these White House veterans have too much experience, too much wisdom and too much life left in them to be consigned to the golf course or simply collect speaking fees.

Maybe next, the presidential duo can apply their diplomatic skills to Washington.

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