What I Learned from Presidents Bush and Clinton

I had a mountaintop experience a few days ago. Attending the 25th Anniversary Conference for TIGER 21, the highlight was a candid conversation with President Bush and President Clinton. Without getting deeply political, I’ll share a few presidential takeaways that apply to my efforts to help families create a lasting legacy and thrive from generation to generation.

First and foremost is the example they set as close friends in spite of their political differences. Only 44 days apart in age, Bush described Clinton as a “brother from another mother.” They are role models for civility. When we disagree with family members or others, look to Bush and Clinton for inspiration on how to maintain civil discourse in spite of differing viewpoints.

Here’s a case in point. Clinton ran an aggressive campaign and deprived Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, of a second term. Moderator Michael Sonnenfeldt asked Bush if he held any resentment over Clinton beating his dad. Bush answered absolutely not. Coming from political families, “we understand losing elections.” He elaborated that his dad had lost multiple elections, never winning a statewide election in Texas. Yet the Bush family respected the process and held no remorse.

Eight years later, Bush defeated Clinton’s Vice President Al Gore in a hotly contested presidential race, yet Bush and Clinton continued to get along. In the first term of his presidency, Bush called upon his dad and Clinton to work together to help him. He appointed them to head up the American response to the disastrous Indian Ocean tsunami. A year later, Bush again called upon them to team up to help address the Hurricane Katrina crisis. Given today’s political polarization, it’s astounding to observe such high-minded behavior. As my wife Laurie would say, “it’s always best to take the high road.” Bush and Clinton certainly took the high road.

Another takeaway that I recommend for families wrestling with tension is to preserve a sense of humor. Though the topics were serious and potentially contentious, Bush and Clinton found connection by sharing humor. A light-hearted comment can help us restore perspective that the relationship we share is what is paramount. Once, Bush jumped in with an answer before the notoriously long-winded Clinton could respond, chiding Clinton for always “talking too long,” so this time Bush wanted to have the floor first. When Clinton’s Apple watch went off, interrupting the flow, Bush joked: “Tell Hillary hi.” A further humorous tribute to their family connection was Bush kidding that Clinton visited his elderly “HW” dad at their Kennebunkport home even more than son “W” did.

My favorite example of humor came in their opening lines. Sonnenfeldt began with the observation that half the attendees at the conference likely voted for Bush and half likely voted for Clinton. Bush’s quick retort: “All of you would vote for either one of us today.” To which Clinton added: “Except we’re too young.” That humor opened the door for a very relaxed and revealing program.

A final observation that applies to family conflict is to find common ground. With Bush and Clinton, there was plenty of common ground. Both expressed concern over those in America who are advocating for isolationism. They were emphatically aligned on their unwavering support for Israel, doing “whatever it takes” to protect Israel and insure its survival. They also expressed fervent support for Ukraine, saying the world would long regret it if Putin won.

Both are champions for bipartisan cooperation. Bush praised Clinton for repeatedly reaching consensus with House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whom Clinton would frequently call to the White House. Per Clinton, Gingrich’s staff started discouraging Gingrich from attending those meetings, aware that Clinton had a way of convincing Gingrich to cave in.

The conversation ended with optimism for America’s future, citing advancements in technology, healthcare, education, and entrepreneurship. They believe the strength of our institutions will withstand whatever happens in the next election and the following four years. Let’s hope they’re right.

The program was an inspiring reminder to cling to values of decency and civility in spite of our disagreements. Families striving for harmony can draw valuable lessons from these leaders. The session ended with Bush planting a big kiss on Clinton’s right temple, which was very warmly received. That kiss served as yet another lesson to battling relatives—follow mother’s advice to put aside differences “and now kiss and make up.”

Marvin E. Blum

Marvin Blum was honored to meet Presidents Bush and Clinton, role models for civility and decency despite their differences. May their example inspire families to do the same.