TORONTO // The former US presidents George W Bush and Bill Clinton shared the political stage here Friday in what organisers billed as a "conversation". It marked the first time that Mr Bush had appeared together with Mr Clinton, his Democratic predecessor, to discuss global politics. Each was reported to have received at least US$150,000 (Dh550,000) for the appearance.
"Clinton and I used to believe in free speech," Mr Bush joked. "So thanks for coming." The Power Within, an event promotion company, charged C$229 (Dh770) for general admission seating and $2,500 for premium seats. About 6,000 people filled the cavernous room at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. "I find it very interesting they're doing this together. I'm curious to that," said Kevin Murphy, an office worker who received a complimentary ticket from his employer. "I have such an idea of Mr Bush in my head, I want to see what he's like in person."
What Mr Murphy and the other customers received for the money was congeniality and humour accompanied by ideological steadfastness from Mr Bush, the United States' most unpopular president in recent memory. Several attendees said they were genuinely surprised at his sense of humour. Mr Bush noted that Mr Clinton had become his "brother" after spending so much time lately with his father, George HW Bush, on humanitarian and philanthropic projects.
While Mr Bush was now "free at last" from the presidency, he said his wife pointed out that he was free to do the dishes and free to mow the lawn. Mr Clinton, meanwhile, said the toughest part of exiting office was that nobody played Hail to the Chief when he entered the room. "I was lost for three months," he said. Nobody cares about what he says these days, he lamented, unless he makes a mistake.
In fact, Mr Clinton said the child of a Hillary Clinton supporter even referred to him as "Hillary's wife". Despite the humour, defiance on matters of substance underscored Mr Bush's appearance. He told the crowd he is writing a book so people can understand some of the decisions he made. There is "no short-term objective history", he said. For Mr Bush, the desire for freedom remains universal, and it is transformative.
He cited the example of how his father went to war against Japan, and 60 years later, after the attacks of September 11, he spoke with then-prime minister Junichiro Koziumi about keeping the peace. "Freedom brings hope," Mr Bush said. "Freedom brings peace. And I'm going to talk about it until my dying days." The lone tendentious moment occurred when the moderator, Frank McKenna, Canada's former ambassador to the United States, asked the two former presidents about the outcome in Afghanistan and whether Iraq was a distraction.
Mr Clinton said he would have preferred to let the UN weapons inspector, Hans Blix, continue his work in Iraq and concentrate on Afghanistan. Mr Bush, however, said: "I don't buy the premise our attention was diverted." He argued it was wrong to replace one strongman with another in Iraq and that democracy was the answer. Moreover, Mr Bush said it is in the interest of free nations to spread democracy and suggested it was elitism for people not to embrace democracy for those countries that lacked it.
"Democracy is imperfect, but it's the best way to spread the peace," Mr Bush said. Yet the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War considers him a war criminal, superimposing his head on the body of a prison inmate in a poster. It gathered a crowd of about 500 people, including Iraq war resisters in Canada, to protest against Mr Bush's appearance and his policies while in office. Across the street from the convention centre and behind a barricade, the activists carried signs saying "Guilty" and "War Criminals not welcome here".
One man carried pictures depicting the torture at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Some activists threw shoes at a giant picture of Mr Bush, recalling the shoe-throwing incident by an Iraqi journalist during a stop by Mr Bush in Baghdad. Inside, Mr McKenna asked the former presidents questions about Cuba, HIV/Aids, Darfur, the Rwandan genocide and same-sex marriage. The two particularly disagreed on President Barack Obama's plans for normalised relations with Cuba.
Mr Bush defended the embargo as important and criticised tourists who spent their money in the country. "You're propping up a regime that puts people in prison for their political views," he said. The strategy should not change, according to Mr Bush, until the government emptied out the prisons and gave its people a voice. However, Mr Clinton said Cuba "ought to be part of the region" and that US presidents needed more latitude to deal with Cuba.
"We can negotiate a better future if we let the president be president," he said. Mr Clinton, who has spent much of his post-presidential career as a philanthropist for the developing world, urged the audience to do public good as private citizens. "We're either going to go up or down together," he said. This contrasted with Mr Bush's defence of his record and his belief that "we're at war". At the end of the 90-minute discussion, Mr McKenna praised the men who governed the United States for the past 16 years. "This has been a rich meal," he said.
Given their fees, Mr Bush and Mr Clinton could hardly disagree. firstname.lastname@example.org