Clinton finds his surrogate family
Growing friendship with Bush clan pays political dividend to all

The Boston Globe | April 12, 2005
By Peter S. Canellos

WASHINGTON -- Born after his father's death, Bill Clinton has spent his life searching for connection. His need for approval was, arguably, the yearning that propelled him all the way to the White House.

Now it appears Clinton has found his surrogate family. He is part of a sprawling clan, legendary for its warmth and unity. It is a clan that is so accustomed to acquiring surrogate sons and daughters that adoption has become a part of its strength.

Clinton has become a member of the Bush clan.

Last week in Rome for the pope's funeral, the clan sat lined up in a pew: Laura, W., Dad, surrogate daughter Condoleezza, and Bill, all seeming more at ease than most families on Christmas Eve. Clinton may have looked a little out of place, like a Great Dane who thinks he belongs to a family of dachshunds, but his contented expression suggested he was exactly where he wanted to be.

Like many relationships in public life, the friendship between Bill Clinton and the Bush family is both genuine and opportunistic. At the highest levels of power, personal and political desires tend to merge: The person and the job become one.

Clinton's need to be accepted led him to speak movingly to all segments of society. Skeptics insisted that it was a ruse, intended to convince people he was someone he was not: a pure liberal to liberals, a moderate to moderates, a budget-balancing conservative to conservatives. And, politically, he was all of those things and none of them. But he was true to himself: He genuinely wanted to be respected by everyone.

Likewise, the two Bush presidents replayed their family roles on the national stage. George H. W. Bush was the genial patriarch and polite host, inviting celebrities from all walks of life to join him at the White House, at Kennebunkport, on his cigarette boat. If his friendliness seemed artificial at times, more a function of noblesse oblige than true empathy, it was all genuine to Bush: The good manners his mother taught him proved to be more deeply embedded than his politics.

George W. Bush, the family enforcer in his father's administration, relies more on loyalty than charm. He offers uncommon backing to his underlings: Bush recently draped a Presidential Medal of Freedom on the shoulders of a smiling George Tenet, the former CIA director whose overhyped intelligence briefings led the president astray. In return, Bush's underlings stay loyal to him: No presidential team has stayed as free of damaging leaks as the current one.

The with-us-or-against-us ethos carries down to the current president's supporters, a rock-solid base that lifted him to reelection in a difficult year.

Clinton's friendship with the Bushes connects with all their personal and political desires. The friendship began with Clinton and the elder Bush, two famously nice guys who happened to have been at odds in the 1992 election. Clinton's need to be forgiven for ousting the older man, and Bush's classy urge to let bygones be bygones, led them each to be very considerate of the other. Their friendship blossomed on their trip last winter to raise funds for Asian tsunami relief. They became so close that former president Bush suggested to the Houston Chronicle that ''maybe I'm the father he never had."

The current President Bush won over Clinton with demonstrations of his loyalty to the presidential club, praising his predecessor effusively while unveiling his White House portrait and helping dedicate Clinton's presidential library. Clinton repaid the debt by telling people how much he liked the president, even while many Democrats were trying to demonize him.

Now, as tends to happen in politics, the personal friendship is paying political dividends for all parties. President Bush's failure to express immediate concern for tsunami victims and his modest initial offer of aid could have been devastating to his image. But Clinton, who remains deeply popular around the world, stepped in to defend Bush and join the relief effort.

Since last year's election, Bush has made a concerted effort to woo European allies. Having Clinton in his pew at the pope's funeral in Rome did more to boost Bush's reputation overseas than a hundred bows to Jacques Chirac.

Clinton, who may be seeking to return to the White House as the president's spouse, probably senses that any viable Democrat must distance himself or herself from the Bush-hating left. What better way to demonstrate that distance than by embracing those very same Bushes?

The hug is sincere, but so is the ambition.

Peter S. Canellos is the Globe's Washington bureau chief. National Perspective is his weekly analysis of events in the capital and beyond.