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Published: Thursday, 4/28/2005

Washington's odd couple

IN A sign of how poisonous the national political discourse has become in recent years, a warm relationship cultivated by two ex-presidents is the talk of the town in Washington and points west.

The partisan divide is so jagged that the chummy connection that has developed between George H.W. Bush, father of the White House incumbent, and Bill Clinton, the man who took his job, looks positively civilized by comparison.

Former First Lady Barbara Bush refers to her husband and Mr. Clinton as "the odd couple," a reference to the old Broadway play and television series about two unlikely apartment mates.

Such a characterization presumably puts H.W. in the role of the uptight neatnik Felix Unger opposite Mr. Clinton's gregarious but slovenly Oscar Madison. Talk about typecasting.

At any rate, the ardent friendship between these former inhabitants of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is about as unexpected as a late-April snowfall, especially since Mr. Clinton drove the elder Bush out of the White House in the 1992 election.

In truth, the relationship has been building for more than a decade, and the two have carefully avoided - most of the time anyway - the angry polarization that has come to widen the Red State-Blue State chasm.

When Mr. Clinton's presidential library was dedicated last November, Mr. Bush spoke graciously of his admiration for the man who ended his political career.

Most recently, they were thrown together as unofficial U.S. ambassadors - appointed by Mr. Bush's son - to the international tsunami relief effort. On the plane flight to Asia, Mr. Clinton, 58, slept on the floor, ceding the stateroom of the government jet to Mr. Bush, who is 80.

They've been seat mates at the Super Bowl, they play golf together, and they phone each other regularly for advice. Mr. Clinton reportedly is due to speak at H.W.'s library in Texas this fall.

Their mutual admiration is so intense and apparently genuine that jaded Washington insiders are, predictably, ruminating about what it all means politically. Is Mr. Clinton setting up Republicans for his wife Hillary's ascent into 2008 presidential politics? Is George W. Bush, the matchmaker, trying to soften his image with Democrats?

More likely, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton are indulging in the mutual affinity and common bond known only to members of that most exclusive of all fraternities - former presidents. Just 42 men have occupied this singular position of power in 216 years (Grover Cleveland had it twice), and just four, including Gerald R. Ford and Jimmy Carter, now share the experience in retirement.

Most of those who have served as president have chosen to serve as elder statesmen in their afterlife, staying mainly on the fringes of partisan politics once they've left office. Restraining the urge to snipe at opposition policies, as Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton have done, undoubtedly is based in the appreciation each has of how difficult it was to be the nation's chief executive.

We would like to believe that the example set by these gentlemen could serve as a model of civility for today's rude and unruly political establishment, but that is probably unrealistic.

Safely out of office, Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton can afford to be magnanimous, even as today's bare-knuckled political system is reluctant to reward its participants for comity and generosity toward opponents.

Even so, it's gratifying to see major figures in public life who haven't succumbed to the politics of personal destruction.



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