On the surface, the appearance of former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton alongside President Obama at the White House last Saturday was inspiring. (Where was the philanthropist Jimmy Carter, by the way? Did he not suit the symbolic symmetry of the occasion?) There they were, 42, 43, and 44, putting aside their partisan differences and joining forces to help relieve the misery in Haiti. This is how America likes to think of itself: unconstrained by the past, generous, adaptable, pragmatic.
Then the revulsion set in.
Are American health care and unemployment not worth an ex-presidential forum, or even an ex-presidential handshake?
It wasn’t just, as commentators quickly pointed out the obvious, that Bush had failed the people—the poor black people—of Louisiana during Hurricane Katrina and was now eagerly seizing the chance to renovate his image by flaunting his help for the people—the poor black people—of Haiti. It wasn’t merely that Clinton had performed one under-handed tactic after another during the late presidential campaign to defeat Obama and recover the White House… for his wife. What turned the stomach was the display of sudden mutual forgiveness and nonpartisanship—at a time when our politics is paralyzed and polarized by the utter lack of both.
Everyone, left and right, agrees that the health-care system is a national nightmare, but Democrats favor substantial reform while Republicans fight them every step of the way. Only three Republican senators voted for the economic stimulus package meant to help the country out of its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The rift between the two parties is so wide that what should be just another Senate race in Massachusetts is now a contest that will decide the country’s fate. Even the Senate dining room is empty—senators from both parties no longer want to sit with each other.
Yet here were Clinton and Bush—not just two men but living symbols of two antithetical epochs in recent American history—publicly admiring each other’s virtues and vowing to work together for the sake of humanity. You forgot for a moment that each man had, at the beginning of his presidency, stretched out a conciliatory hand to the other side but had promptly been bitten, and then pulverized, and finally turned into a walking reminder of everything each side hates about the other.
For a brief moment, watching the two men in the Rose Garden and listening to them speak, you could be forgiven for wondering just what all the bitter disagreement is about in our politics. Are the issues really as divisive as they were nearly 50 years ago? Are they as polarizing as they were when, even at the height of the Cold War, Kennedy could still make his famous 1962 speech proclaiming the end of ideology and the dawn of an age in which “most of the problems… that we now face are technical problems, are administrative problems… which do not lend themselves to the great sort of passionate movements which have stirred this country so often in the past”?
Now more than ever it seems that our problems are technical, bureaucratic. A fix to the tax code here, a different emphasis on the relationship between business and the government there, and you have a health-care system that is workable and humane, an economy on the way to revival. Our problems seem almost trivial compared to the domestic strife wreaked by the Cold War, compared to the national conflict over what type of society we should have that ripped the country apart in the 1960s and early ‘70s.
Perhaps what we are really suffering from are not intractable public dilemmas at all, but political leaders who live inside their heads, who follow their own self-interest blindly, with nary a glance at the real world around them.
After the illusion of harmony burst, you could see that very problem, right there, in the Rose Garden, as Bush stood like a hurt little boy—why do they hate me?—with that hangdog air and his hands clasped penitently in front of him; and Clinton stood like an angry teenager—oh, how I hate them!—with that wily, hyper-vigilant air, his hands clasped conspiratorially behind his back. Each of them began to project that particular American vanity of implacable optimism that reflects back on the virtue of the projector. Right before your eyes, they began living in their heads.
Bush: “It's amazing how terrible tragedies can bring out the best of the human spirit.” Well, then by all means bring on the terrible tragedies! Clinton: “The Haitians want to just amend their development plan to take account of what's happened in Port-au-Prince and west…” Oh, is that all they “just” have to do? Bush couldn’t resist putting in a plug for “faith-based” relief in Haiti, but Clinton got especially carried away, reminding us that he was courageously once “in these hotels that collapsed” (shades of Hillary on the Bosnian runway), making an incomprehensible joke about someone’s Web site, laughing and joshing and seducing. Haitians, he concluded, charmingly “can escape their history and build a better future.”
The morally vain sunshine routine was even more offensive than the two ex-presidents appealing to the American people’s finer qualities to solicit money for Haiti—as if we had to be persuaded to help. The ex-presidents’ optimism in the face of other people’s nightmares was even more alarming than when Bush referred to Obama as “the President Obama”—as though Obama were not a president at all, but a natural calamity, like a hurricane, or an earthquake. For optimism about Haiti is like a slap in Haiti's face. Haiti may have had a peaceful democratic election, but it is a cruel oligarchy, about as far from real democracy as the Soviet Union was. We should send as much money and help as we can, of course, but we should have no illusions about the malign roots of Haitian suffering.
Billions of dollars in annual international aid have done nothing to change a condition in which a few wealthy families keep the rest of the country hopeless and impoverished. The earthquake is a fatal disruption in the country’s history, which will set Haiti back decades. It will be something of a miracle if the result is not a military coup resulting in a dictatorship. In fact, a benign dictatorship that distributed the country’s wealth more equitably, that educated and elevated the poor, would be a better situation than the sham of Haiti’s “democracy.”
In the end, it was not just Haiti that was the object, as it were, of ex-presidential blindness last Saturday. Displays of bipartisan unity are becoming something like a fashionable trope of international disaster relief. It is remarkable, and grotesque, that Bush and Clinton cannot muster even that fleeting symbolic union to address America's own crises. Why is our domestic politics off-limits to such symbolic displays? Are American health care and unemployment not worth an ex-presidential forum, or even an ex-presidential handshake?
Such questions were not worth asking when you realized finally that the sunshine harmony of the two ex-presidents standing there in the Rose Garden was another kind of sham. They are living inside their own self-interested heads along with just about everyone else in public life, and the true revelation of their new partnership is that neither Haiti’s deeper crisis nor our own is going to improve any time soon.
Lee Siegel is The Daily Beast's senior columnist. He publishes widely on culture and politics and is the author of three books: Falling Upwards: Essays in Defense of the Imagination; Not Remotely Controlled: Notes on Television; and, most recently, Against the Machine: How the Web Is Reshaping Culture And Commerce—And Why It Matters. In 2002, he received a National Magazine Award for reviews and criticism.