Saturday, May 30, 2009

Dispatch from the Bush/Clinton

As most Torontonians likely know (particularly if they attempted to drive along Front Street yesterday afternoon), former American presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were in town talking to each other yesterday, ably facilitated by former New Brunswick premier and Canadian ambassador to the US Frank McKenna.

I posted a quick summary of the highlights here, but below is a longer report on the event that, I hope, fills in the blanks from the mainstream media's coverage* of the event. 

After a sprinkling of opening remarks, Clinton took the stage.  By this point, we were about 45 minutes behind schedule, which I found mildly annoying given that 5,000 people had spent between $200 and $2,500 each to be there.  Michael (my co-attendee) mused it was likely due to the backlog of photo-ops, later confirmed by a friend who attended said photo-op.

Clinton opened with a short quip equating the audience's expectations for a show-down to a 21st century version of the Roman coliseum, followed by an acknowledgment and thanks for the Canadian sacrifices, human and financial, in Afghanistan and for David Miller's role as chair of the C40, a group of cities committed to tackling climate change.

He then talked about the transition from President to the job description-less position of former President.  He described life in the Oval Office as "a constant struggle between doing what you promised and dealing with incoming events."  To much of the prior and you look like an idiot ignorant of current realities, too much of the latter and you're a good steward, but you haven't stayed true to the country's founders' desire for "a more perfect union."  Next thing you know, it's all over and you need to figure out what to do with the rest of your life.

Perhaps in a preview to how he'd like history to see him, he cited a handful of ex-presidents who went on to greatness in their post-presidential lives.  John Quincy Adams, who was a leading proponent to end slavery. Taft, who went on to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.  Teddy Roosevelt who started a national political movement.  Hoover, who reorganized the federal government into a structure that largely survives to this day.

He then talked about how he's "switched places" with Hillary, who while he was in office was very active in the charitable sector.  Although he has to watch what he says ("she gets asked if I give the wrong answer," he said), he gives speeches, works on climate change, obesity and of course, on international development through his foundation.

Next he segued to his views on public service.  Here, he had three points (none, by the way, of which were really reported in the media accounts I heard or read).  The first was the message that "we should all do something like this [in reference to his rule, which is if you're going to attend his meeting, you have to do something]... we live in an interdependent world and we can't escape each other's fate." He cited the environment, the financial crisis and the swine flu threat as three examples.  Next he highlighted that one does not have to be an ex-president or a millionaire to do it.  For example, if Canadians want to help Afghanistan, they can visit to become a micro-lender, helping their citizens.  Third, he encouraged everyone to work to fill the gaps that public policy and a vibrant economy will never fill, which are largely the "how" parts.  "I try to find people in a how mentality who want to be in the how industry," he said.  As I noted here, he uses the inability of signatory states to meet the Kyoto commitments (kindly he didn't mention Canada, although he could have).

Next came Bush, whose tan and relaxed demeanor suggested the Texan lifestyle was agreeing with him.  As the media reported, he was full of jokes.  My favourite equated Laura's prodding of him to do the dishes with "his new domestic policy agenda."  I also chuckled at his comment that "Clinton and I used to believe in free speech," a not-so-subtle reference to their speaking fees, rumoured to be somewhere between $150,000 and $300,000.

He's spending his days writing a book, scheduled for release in November 2010 (with a good amount of self-deprecation, he acknowledged that many suggested he couldn't even read a book, but he'd prove 'em wrong!).  "History has a way of changing pretty quickly," he said, "[this will] stake my claim to eight years of the presidency so people understand why I made the decisions I made."  He's also working on a library at the Southern Methodist University that will "continue to press the freedom agenda."

He then told a story about the call he received from the Japanese prime minister after 9/11, who pledged his commitment to the United States.  Bush spoke fondly at this point, recalling that 60 years earlier, his father had signed up to fight the Japanese in World War Two, and now the president of that nation called him to offer support.  In those intervening years, Bush said, "Japan moved to freedom... 60 years is a nanosecond in history."

He closed citing freedom from disease and free trade as other important liberties, and stressed his "optimism about the future."  "I look forward to being a part of it," he said.

The discussion then turned to the Q&A, masterfully (I thought) facilitated by Frank McKenna.  There were seven in total.  Below is a very brief summary of each.

Q1: Afghanistan and the way forward?

WJC: The main issue is what to do now.  Pakistan is important.  We know the Afghans want to be free and not run by the Taliban and we have to salvage things.  We have good people on the case and should stay with them.

GWB: Democracy is an ideology against haters.  This is worth it, and it's in our self-interest to spread democracy. "It's the worst form of elitism" to have it and not wish it on others.  Democracy and change takes time.  Look at the US - people in the administration have great grandparents who were slaves.  It takes time.

Q2: Cuba

GWB: I didn't appreciate it when my predecessors criticized me, although (looking to Clinton) "he never did."  [Ed: I'm assuming he's referring to Jimmy Carter or to Ford's embargoed interview, since his father is the only other living ex-president].  In short, the US should keep the embargo in place.

WJC: "My view is influenced by what the Secretary of State says on the matter."  We can't walk away from countries we don't agree with (e.g., China).  Cuba does great (e.g., help in Haiti) and unacceptable things.  "I'd like Congress to give the President the power to see where we can take this thing... it's an error for us to write this off or just make money down there and not care about the people."

Q3: Why didn't you intervene in Rwanda? (to Clinton)

WJC: It's one of the greatest regrets of my presidency, along with a large regret of the National Security staff.  We didn't have a meeting in the White House about it.  We didn't know it would get so bad as fast.  There was hostility in Congress about Bosnia and Somolia (Black Hawk Down).  In six months, it was all over.  We couldn't have saved all the lives, but we could have saved 300,000. I  have to live with that for the rest of my life.  Now, he's doing everything he can to make it up to them (e.g., helped raise the money for a holocaust museum, helps prevent AIDS/HIV).  Told several extremely touching stories about Rwandans he's met or heard of, including one cab driver who, when talking to a reporter who wanted him to criticize Clinton, said, "Yeah, sure, he should have helped.  But so should have a lot of other people.  And he's the only one who's come here to apologize."  Hopes it helped hasten the US' response in Kosovo, where they got in right away and only 10,000 lives were lost. [Ed: this was the most touching moment for me]

Q4: Darfur (to Bush)

GWB: There is a role for all of us.  We sent supplies and helped with logistics.  We accepted the UN recommendation not to go in unilaterally to another Muslim country.  Once you decide not to act unilaterally you have to rely on international cooperation, which is slow and difficult.   They needed other countries to apply pressure. The UN, with all due respect, "is not meant for problem solving."  (e.g., China, which is driven largely by economic development, needs energy so won't support action).  "Diplomacy only works when there's leverage."  He then said, "we moved a lot of food... the problem is.... well, enough said" and sat back in his chair.  [Ed: I wish he'd said more.]

WJC: This mirrors the challenge he had getting NATO allies into Bosnia, where the US was also criticized for not going in fast enough.  One can't compare Darfur to Rwanda.  "He [Bush] did all he could do.... we had all this manpower in Iraq and Afghanistan."  Providing logistics and asking others to help can work (e.g., that's what they did in East Timor, where the Australians and the Thais sent people).  "Even Darfur advocates said we shouldn't be doing it alone."

GWB (to Clinton in reference to Rwanda): You were too hard on yourself.  You can't just pick up the phone and order 20,000 troops.

WJC: If I'd seen what was going to happen more clearly than we did, we could have saved 250,000-400,000 people.

[Ed: this was an interesting exchange - it was almost like they were trying to one-up each other in support!]

Q5: Same sex relationships/repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act/Ask Don't Tell

GWB: There is a difference between rights and marriage.  Clinton handled the military issue the right way.  If they military has changed, they can make a recommendation to the president.  You don't cram political decisions down the throats of your military.

WJC: [Ed: I'm not doing justice to his response, largely because I got a bit lost in the "ask don't tell" details].  I was trying to starve off anti-gay legislation/constitutional amendments that were coming.    His view on gay marriage is evolving.  Agrees with the Canadian position.

Q6: Passport to cross the border (see here for more on this).

GWB: We had a very different strategy.  "Let me be frank, Frank," I'm not sure what happened.  What happened to Easy Pass?  I'm opposed to Buy America provisions.

WJC: I, like most Americans, didn't know anything about this.  In an interdependent environment when insecurity goes up, one's sense of control does too.  No doubt all kinds of scenarios were developed (e.g., the millenium bomber).  Should have a better system.  "You've got my attention on this so I'm going to take it back home."

Q7: HIV/AIDS in Africa

[Ed: due to the late start and an evening commitment I had, I had to leave without a complete documentation of this answer, but I did catch Clinton's summation, "once you take a communitarian position and realize we're going to go up or down together, party differences matter less."  Hopefully a message for all of us to remember.]

 *To save you the Googling, here are a few links: the Globe's Ian Brown here, the Star's Rosie DiManno here and the New York Times' here.  

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