When Barack Obama was hatching his most elaborate campaign video, he recruited two Oscar winners--one to direct and another, Tom Hanks, to narrate. But the real star of the film was not the man looking to win a second term. It was someone who had already accomplished that.
Bill Clinton appears four times in 17 minutes. Narrowing his eyes, pointing his finger, Clinton croaks out his favorite closing arguments for Obama on the economy, the auto bailout, health care reform and foreign policy. And then he confers upon Obama the Oval Office seal of approval for sending in the Navy SEALs after Osama bin Laden. "When I saw what happened," says Clinton of the raid in Pakistan, "I thought to myself, I hope that's the call I would've made."
For anyone who has studied the winding relationship between the 42nd President and the 44th, this is a ritually satisfying plot twist: Obama and Clinton, the only two Democratic Presidents in the past 31 years, are rivals as much as allies. They fought like ferrets in 2008: Clinton suggested Obama's record was a fairy tale; Obama suggested Clinton's presidency was paltry, a missed opportunity. Inside the Obama White House, Clintonian became a dirty word, a blackball top aides deployed to kill any idea that wasn't big enough or bold enough, or had too many angles or was just too political. At the heart of the Clinton-Obama grudge match was a prize for the ages: Which Democrat--the hot-blooded baby boomer or the cold-blooded law professor--would be remembered for saving liberalism when the nation was in a distinctly conservative mood? The two men spent most of 2009 and 2010 trying to piece together a partnership from the debris of the campaign. Even today, one party insider who knows them both describes the relationship in three words: "No love lost."
Now as Clinton gives full-throated testimony to Obama's many virtues, the reinvented relationship gives new meaning to the title of the campaign video: The Road We've Traveled. Against the backdrop of presidential history, however, reconciliation was practically inevitable. No matter what may separate American Presidents when it comes to politics, personalities or petty grievances, they are members of a unique and exclusive fraternity, and they are bound together by experiences that no one else can understand. "There is no conversation so sweet as that of former political enemies," Harry Truman once observed, and the modern Presidents are living proof. By the time Clinton made peace with Obama, he was also so close to the entire Bush family--vacationing with the father, raising money with the son, even escorting Barbara at Betty Ford's funeral--that the Texas clan had bestowed a nickname: Brother from Another Mother.
The Presidents club may not be in the Constitution or any book or bylaw, but neither is it a metaphor or figure of speech. It was created in 1953 at Dwight Eisenhower's Inauguration, when Herbert Hoover proposed the alliance to Truman. The two men, political and personal opposites, agreed that in the postwar age, a strong presidency was essential to U.S. security, and they worked together to enhance the powers of the office.