Saturday, May 30, 2009

Clinton and Bush: The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" Summit in Toronto

Wise Law Blog's Garry J. Wise attended at the Bush - Clinton Summit at the Toronto Convention Centre on May 29, 2009. His report follows:


It was an event where cordiality would certainly trump controversy.

This, perhaps, was not surprising, given the conservative tone established by a banking executive's introduction of Bill Clinton. He lauded the former President's accomplishments in office, citing job creation stimulated by cuts in welfare payments to America's poor and Mr. Clinton's ability to move the Democratic party "back to the centre."

(Clearly, there would be no home-ice advantage for progressives at this arena, despite Toronto's typically moderate, liberal leanings)

For his own part, the dialogue's mostly-deferential moderator, Frank McKenna, a former Liberal Premier of New Brunswick, Canada's 21st Ambassador to the U.S. and currently Toronto-Dominion Bank Deputy Chair, did little to steer the discussion toward any seriously newsworthy comment by either former President on any questions lingering about his administration's legacy.

It was not to be an afternoon of the toughest questions - or newly-illuminating answers.

If there were certain elephants in the room - questions on impeachment, perjury and toxic partisanship, on the Bush administration's use of torture or former Vice President Cheney's recent, repeated accusation that current President Barack Obama is making America less safe - nobody was asking.

And neither former President was telling.

Thus, those hoping for any specific discussion on "enhanced interrogation methods" or a critical look at America's direction in the wake of 9-11 were destined to go home disappointed.

For much of the well-heeled crowd inside, who paid between $200 and $2500 for the privilege of attending the spectacle, self-styled as "history in the making," that seemed perfectly fine.

Outdoors, however, a throng of noisy but almost farcically well-behaved protesters (this is Toronto, after all) demanded that Toronto's police force immediately arrest Mr. Bush for torture and other alleged war crimes.

Their call was punctuated by an area in their cordoned-off protest zone where willing protesters politely lined up, waiting a turn to toss their footwear at an effigy of Mr. Bush that conveniently sat in as an undefended target for their pointed, but on this day, marginalized outrage.

Let's be clear - true controversy was avoided at all costs.

As a window, however, into the lives and minds of the world's two most powerful men of the last sixteen years, the event certainly delivered with ninety minutes of interesting and often-amusing political theater.

A revealing subtext, nonetheless, may well be in the degree to which the easy retreat by both to safe and common ground underlines the closed and narrow circle of policy and opinion occupied by America's two political parties - and the comfort with which its past leaders protect themselves, and each other from true accountability and scrutiny in the legacy years that follow their administrations' sunsets.

Thus, for those of us in the audience, it was a unique peak into the rules of the road in America's most elite group of all - its Past-President's Club.

Bill Clinton

"America has never had a better ally than Canada," Mr. Clinton stated, warming the audience at the opening of wide-ranging remarks that touched upon Canada's continuing military engagement in Afghanistan, the increasing, documented perils of global warming, and his Clinton Global Initiative, a project aimed at bringing together government, corporate and other leadership interests to address the world's pressing concerns.

Among his key points:
Anticipating the question and answer segment that was to follow the introductory speeches by each former President, Mr. Clinton noted - perhaps apologetically - the constraints imposed on his ability to be fully candid by his wife's appointment as U.S. Secretary of State.

"I have to worry what they will ask Hillary and President Obama if I mess up an answer."

He made it clear, however, that he was not in Toronto to engage in any dust-up with Mr. Bush, indicating that he would do his best to "thwart" any attempt by Mr. McKenna to encourage the event's two marquee guests to "devour each other."

"We'll have an argument, you'll think it's cute..," Mr. Clinton noted, perhaps derisively at the prospect of any conflict in the conversation ahead, making it rather plain that Hillary's role aside, he had no personal inclination to engage in any direct crossfire with his successor.

Instead, he addressed the existential challenge inherent in the life of any ex-U.S. President, noting the U.S. Constitution mandates no role for the nation's former chief executives.

"There is no job description for a former President," said Mr. Clinton. "You have to figure out what to do for the rest of your life." Noting the necessary adjustment after leaving office, he said, "It takes a while to figure out that you're not President any more."

But, he added, a former President quickly learns things have changed. "They don't play Hail to the Chief anymore when you walk into a room."

For Mr. Clinton, the solution lies in continued public service and in living in the present and the future, rather than the past. "I don't tell too many war stories."

Instead, his post-Presidential efforts aim to enhance the critical role of non-governmental entities in effecting necessary change.

People must "do something," he stated, whether that be about global warming, swine flu, or any current challenge in what he sees as our now, highly-interconnected world.

"Citizens can do their part in the 21st century," he urged.

He noted the internet's power as a fundraising tool, enabling individual participation in micro-banking via KIVA.org and disaster relief efforts, such as the Hurricane Katrina experience in which millions of donors combined to aid with average online donations of $56.00.

"How you contribute is the key," said Mr. Clinton.

On the legacy of a presidency he concludes, "The real issue is if the world is better when you leave than when you start."

For Mr. Clinton, "that depends on the how."

George W. Bush

Not surprisingly, George Bush is rather enjoying his immediate post-Presidency.

In a disarmingly jovial, even at times impish talk that did little to dispel the widely-held view that Mr. Bush may indeed be an enjoyable sort of fellow with whom to shoot the breeze, he began by drawling, "I like being in Texas again."

In fact, after commending former first lady Laura Bush on her acquisition of their new Dallas home, he noted jokingly that his initial reaction upon arrival in Texas, after departing the White House, was "Free at last!"

"I don't miss the spotlight," he said, noting he was enjoying the transition from moving at "a hundred miles an hour to zero."

His current activities include walking his dog Barney, and he noted the irony of a former President's engagement in the "stoop and scoop" duties now incumbent upon him in his new neighbourhood.

Beyond that, Laura Bush has mandated his new "domestic agenda," Mr. Bush deadpanned, including mowing the lawn and similar household chores.

Regarding his future plans, Mr. Bush advised, "I'm a Type-A personality - I need something to do." For the former President, that will in the immediate future include writing a book on his Presidency.

"There is no short-term, objective view of history," he stated. "I want people to understand why I made the decisions I made."

Mr. Bush also took a typically self-effacing, humorous jab at his many critics, noting that by becoming an author, he would be sending a message to those with doubts about his inclination - and perhaps, ability - to even read a book.

"I'm gonna prove 'em wrong," he joked.

Mr. Bush will also focus on building a policy centre and Presidential Library at Southwestern Methodist University in Dallas, where he intends to promote his continuing Freedom Agenda.

"Freedom is the alternative to the ideology of the haters. Freedom is tranformative. Freedom brings opportunity. Freedom brings peace," he said.

"I will keep talking about it until my dying day."

On Canada-US relations, Mr. Bush echoed Mr. Clinton's sentiments.

"America is lucky to have such a good friend on our northern border. Canada is our ally and trading partner." Underlining his continuing, staunch support for free trade, Mr. Bush reiterated his opposition to isolationism and "buy American" policies. "There should be no walls between Canada and the US."

Mr. Bush remains an optimist, unrepentant about the war in Iraq. "The world is a safer place without Saddam Hussein," he argued, repeating a mantra that defined much of his Administration.

He seemed to relish the opportunity for a new role as an extravagently-paid keynote speaker.

"I believe in free speech," he punned with a grin, hinting at the considerable sums ponied up by the audience of 6,000.

"Thank you for coming."

Clinton, Bush and McKenna

The program's final segment featured its much-anticipated dialogue between the two former Presidents and Mr. McKenna.

The thirty-minute, three-way conversation touched upon:
  • The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq;
  • Barack Obama's moderating policy toward Cuba;
  • Gay marriage, the Defence of Marriage Act and the US military's "Don't Ask Don"t Tell" policy toward gay servicemen and women;
  • Mr. Clinton's failure to act in a timely manner to prevent the 1994 Rwandan genocide;
  • New regulations requiring the presentation of passports at border points in order to enter the U.S. from Canada.
In perhaps its most jagged moment, Mr. Clinton expressed his remorse at failing to move quickly enough to stop the Rwandan genocide.

Reiterating his belief that had America acted expeditiously, hundreds of thousands of lives might have been saved, Clinton acknoweldged his administration's lapse.

"I will live with it for the rest of my life." he said, thanking Rwandans for their forgiveness, and stating his determination to continue his work in Rwanda to "make it up to them."

On signing the Defence of Marriage Act, which limits federal recognition of same-sex marriages, Clinton defended his 1994 decision as a compromise to stave off others' efforts to pursue a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Mr. Bush reiterated his belief that marriage is, in fact, limited to a sacred union between a man and a woman and was emphatic in his opposition to recognition of gay marriage. Mr. Clinton indicated his position continues to "evolve" on this issue.

On President Obama's relaxation on travel and other restrictions involving Cuba, Mr. Clinton deferred to the current Secretary of State, and indicated support for a moderated American policy toward Cuba.

Mr. Bush disagreed. "Diplomacy only works if there is leverage," he contended.

In a more personal moment, Mr. Bush commended Mr. Clinton for never openly criticizing his successor. Mr. Bush was less flattering about certain other, unnamed predecessors, however, who had been more vocal in opposition to his administration's direction.

"It was disrespectful. I didn't appreciate it," he said.

(It was unclear whether Mr. Bush was referring in this context to former President Jimmy Carter or his father, former President George H.W. Bush)

This dialogue presented an opportune moment for Mr. McKenna to enquire as to Mr. Bush's thoughts on Mr. Cheney's recent criticisms of the current Obama administration.

The question, of course, never came.

Mr. Clinton returned the favour of praise, commending Mr. Bush on his administration's financial support for AIDS relief in Africa. 

Noting that "To whom much is given, much is required," Mr. Bush framed AIDS relief as both a humanitarian necessity and a national security imperative that could reduce dangerous hopelessness in Africa and promote understanding of America as a caring nation.

On the election of President Obama, Mr. Clinton remarked that it serves as proof that "America is no longer a black/white nation."

An interesting moment came at the dialogue's conclusion, when Mr. McKenna delivered an impassioned plea for America to reconsider its decision to require that passports be presented by Canadian  visitors at U.S. border crossings. "We thought we were different," Mr. McKenna complained.

"That was a good speech, Frank," Mr. Bush responded. "You should think about getting back into the game."

Both Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush appeared mystified regarding the border policy, admitting ignorance as to the passport-reqirement regulations, passed in December 2007, during Mr. Bush's tenure.

Mr. Bush queried, "What happened to the EZ Pass Program? I thought we were getting somewhere with that."

Mr. Clinton offered action on the issue. "I'm going back home to see what I can come up with."

Even in the Past-Presidents' Club, then, it apparently helps to have close contacts in Washington.
Many thanks to Omar Ha-Redeye, of Slaw and Law is Cool, who procured our tickets for the event, and Jennifer Smith, of Runesmith's Canadian Content, who also joined us, along with a colleague of Mr. Ha'Redeye's (who, perhaps surprisingly, has no blog to which we may link)

- Garry J. Wise, Toronto

Visit our Toronto Law Firm website: www.wiselaw.net

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