DALLAS — Together on stage, the two families who have dominated American politics for the past two decades joined Thursday to pay tribute to the opening of George W. Bush’s presidential center. Whether the families will have another act – in 2016 – was the unspoken subtext.
President George H.W. Bush, frail and seated in a wheel chair, beamed with pride, thanking the audience for honoring “our son.” President Bill Clinton, who defeated the elder Bush 20 years ago, joked that he had become the “black sheep son” of the Bush family.
George W. Bush, standing before his gleaming new center, observed that it was the “first time in American history that parents have seen their son’s presidential library.” Bush said his father taught him “how to be a president. Before that he showed me how to be a man.”
The dedication of the red-brick library on the campus of Southern Methodist University placed a spotlight on two of the nation’s most prominent political families – and the prospect of another White House campaign involving them in 2016. Former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton accompanied her husband on stage while former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush sat in the audience with his wife, Columba.
Both are considering presidential bids in three years, moves that could create unprecedented dynasties – the first spouses to serve as president or the first brothers – and lead to a similar event at a future library a decade or more from now.
President Obama, who broke the 20-year string of either a Bush or Clinton in the Oval Office, thanked his predecessors, noting that the “world’s most exclusive club” acted more like “a support group” of former presidents who help each other. Obama has his own back story with the families – he waged a long primary race against the former New York senator in 2008, campaigned vigorously against Bush’s policies and then turned to the former first lady to run the State Department. When Obama needed a re-election boost last year, Bill Clinton was there to help.
Indeed, the White House has created a bond among the families, from George H.W. Bush, who presided over the end of the Cold War but watched his popularity fade, to Bill Clinton, whose “I feel your pain” message created a connection with Americans that survived impeachment. The younger Bush, who choked up at the end of his speech here, is remembered for a bullhorn speech amid the wreckage of the 9/11 attacks in New York that was followed by draining wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that left him unpopular.
“The presidents’ club is small,” said Mary Matalin, a longtime adviser to the Bush family. “Only presidents who have sat behind that desk in the Oval Office know the weight of it. There’s just a bond there that nobody else can understand except for a handful of people who have done it.”
The families first squared off in 1992, when George H.W. Bush ran for re-election and faced Bill Clinton and independent H. Ross Perot in a riveting campaign that took place as Bush’s sky-high approval dwindled following the first Iraq war.
Clinton repeatedly questioned Bush’s handling of the economy while the incumbent challenged the fitness for office of Clinton and running mate Al Gore, punctuated by Bush’s claim that his English springer spaniel, Millie, knew more about foreign policy “than these two Bozos.”
George W. Bush served as an aide to his father’s re-election campaign, giving him a close-up view of his father’s defeat – and plenty of reasons to dislike the opponent. But the harsh words quickly subsided.
When the Clintons arrived at the White House in January 1993, aides to both families said the Bush family was gracious to the new president and his family. The elder Bush avoided criticizing his successor and after Clinton’s presidency, the two joined forces to raise money for victims of the devastating tsunami in Asia in 2005 and Hurricane Katrina in 2006.
Aides describe a friendship between the two ex-presidents that almost resembles a father-son relationship. Bill Clinton has visited the ailing ex-president at his homes in Houston and Kennebunkport, Maine, and first lady Barbara Bush joked in a 2012 interview with Parade Magazine that her sons refer to Clinton as their “brother by another mother.”
“My mother told me not to talk too long today – and Barbara, I will not let you down,” Clinton quipped Thursday, prompting laughs from Hillary Clinton.
That friendship helped connect Clinton and George W. Bush, who campaigned for president in 2000 on restoring “honor and dignity” to the White House following Clinton’s impeachment over a sex scandal. After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, Obama tapped Clinton and the younger Bush to lead a relief effort.
Joshua Bolten, a former chief of staff to George W. Bush and a board member of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, recalled that on their first trip to Haiti, the presidents wore tan baseball caps emblazoned with the number 85 – the combination of the 42nd and 43rd presidents. He said the relationship between Clinton and the elder Bush “helped open the door to a good 42 and 43 relationship.”
Both families know what it’s like to watch a family member face the scrutiny of a national campaign. Clinton recounted that in 2008, he and George W. Bush would talk politics by phone as Hillary Clinton sought the White House – a time when Bush’s approval ratings sank and Republicans avoided him. Clinton, standing a few feet from Obama, joked that a “chill went up and down my spine” when he learned that the Bush library’s records were digitized. “Dear god I hope there is no records of those conversations.”
The two families could be thrust into the spotlight once again if Hillary Clinton or Jeb Bush runs for president in three years. During the 2008 campaign, Bill Clinton served as his wife’s top surrogate, vouching for her abilities. In recent days, George W. Bush has encouraged his younger brother to seek the White House, saying in an interview with C-SPAN, “My first advice is: Run.”
But first lady Barbara Bush appeared to disagree. Asked in an interview Thursday on NBC’s “Today” show how she felt about Jeb Bush running for president, Mrs. Bush said, “We’ve had enough Bushes.”
Recent polling has found an improving assessment of George W. Bush’s presidency, a measurement which could play a factor in how Jeb Bush would be viewed in future Republican primaries. A poll released in March of registered Republicans by Quinnipiac University found Jeb Bush trailing GOP opponents such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan and Kentucky Sen. Ron Paul.
Hillary Clinton remains popular, with a Gallup poll released earlier this month showing that 64 percent had a favorable opinion of her.
The presidential trail follows both of them three years before the next election. Clinton supporters chanted her name outside her private speech in nearby Irving, Texas, on Wednesday night while Jeb Bush received encouragement to run for president during an event with a Dallas civic group. Looking to the future, Jeb Bush pointed to the nascent campaign in Texas of his 37-year-old son, George P. Bush.
“To be honest, I’m focused on the land commissioner race in 2014,” Bush said with a smile.
Presidential politics can wait.