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Clinton and W. join together
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When Bill Clinton and George W. Bush announced a project jointly sponsored by their presidential libraries, news coverage focused on the style, not the substance, of the event.
The Wall Street Journal said the two ex-presidents "could have been mistaken for a comedy routine." The Associated Press said they "shared laughs and a buddy-like banter."
But behind the banter was a serious message. Their libraries -- along with those devoted to Lyndon Johnson and George Bush 41 -- are starting a leadership training program that is more needed than ever. As Clinton and Bush made clear, part of their mission is to demonstrate Washington does not have to be a cesspool of toxic partisanship.
By their presence and performance, they embodied a key dimension of effective leadership. They showed political rivals do not have to be personal enemies. In fact, they can actually like each other, trust each other, cooperate with each other.
And they can do so while disagreeing on basic issues. As Clinton noted, the Founding Fathers "never said our job was to agree on everything." The Founders did say, however, that leaders were obligated to make a genuine effort to bridge their differences and find workable solutions.
Yes, it's a lot easier for retired politicians to make friends than it is for battlefield commanders. But the ex-presidents were making a point that demands to be heard. This Congress will set records for being both unproductive and unpopular. According to the website Real Clear Politics, the average favorability score for Congress is 13.8 percent.
Republican and Democratic leaders on the Hill clearly despise each other. Washington resembles a World War I battlefield, with both sides dug deeply into their own trenches.
There's growing evidence these leaders are reflecting the attitudes of their constituents. A survey by the Pew Research Center reveals America increasingly resembles a European system, with two parties -- one liberal, one conservative -- that consider their opponents not only wrong, but dangerous.
Two vitally important traditions -- progressive Northern Republicans and moderate Southern Democrats -- have all but disappeared. And as their ranks have dwindled, the gulf between the parties has widened.
That's why the Bill and George Show was so refreshing. Asked what they learned from each other, Clinton praised Bush for working with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts liberal, on education reform. Bush lauded Clinton as an "awesome communicator" who was able to work with Republicans on issues like welfare reform.
These two men have ample reason to dislike each other. Clinton defeated Bush's father; Bush defeated Clinton's vice president, Al Gore. Yet they remain loyal to a larger goal: the good of the country.
If their libraries can teach that to young leaders, they will make an enormously valuable contribution.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.