In 2004, former President Bill Clinton had surgery to remove scar tissue around his lung. In the days that followed, who called him on the phone? Former President George H.W. Bush, anxious to check on him. “What do your doctors say? Are you sore? How much can you exercise? Are you using your treadmill?”
That is my favorite moment in a collection of stories that Liz Joyner and I have been calling “treasonous friendships.”
I grew up in the time and place where despising Bill and Hillary Clinton was just a rite of passage — a way of signaling you were on the right side of the culture war.
If anyone had a right to despise Bill Clinton, though, it was the man he kicked out of the White House. Yet on the day he had to leave the premises, Bush famously left a note on the desk for his successor that read in part, “You will be our president when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well. Your success now is our country’s success. I am rooting hard for you. Good luck, George.”
That small act of generosity became a seed for something I find stunning. One year after that surgery, Bush and Clinton ended up on an Air Force plane flying overnight on a fundraising visit to an area in Thailand hit badly by a tsunami.
There was only one bed on the plane.
Bush remembered the moment this way: “He wouldn’t take the bedroom on the Air Force plane. I said, ‘No, come on, you go in there, and I’ll take the next leg.’” Recollecting how Clinton said, “No, no,” Bush remarked, “That means something to me. I’m older, and it was a very great courtesy.”
Later on, Clinton would find excuses to drop by and visit the ailing George Bush Sr. — always leaving him another pair of funny socks for his collection. He would say about their connection, “He befriended me. It’s been one of the great joys of my life, my friendship with him.” After the death of the man he beat for the White House, Clinton simply said, “I just loved him.”
For her part, Bush’s widow, Barbara, once said, “I love Bill Clinton. Maybe not his politics, but I love Bill Clinton.”
I can’t help getting emotional when I read this story — and not like watching a sappy Hallmark romance.
Much more like seeing an incredible sunset. Or a beautiful photograph. Because this is real, not fantasy. And it’s such a beautiful and timely reminder.
Since the passing of odd couples Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, and U.S. senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Kennedy, have you seen any prominent examples of cross-party friendships these days?
Pretty slim pickings. I guess you could count some sweet moments between Michelle Obama and George W. Bush — who has also continued a lasting friendship with Clinton. But it’s hard to find other major examples in national politics.
Thankfully, we can look beyond the political scene to stories like the friendship between Dan Cathy, the CEO of Chick-fil-A, and Shane Windmeyer, the leader of Campus Pride. Or the story of leftist Cornel West and conservative Robert P. George, a Deseret News contributor who after 12-plus years of talking, says about their relationship, “He thinks I’m wrong. I think he’s wrong. OK. Let’s continue to wrestle with these things.”
I used to collect baseball and basketball cards of my athlete heroes. Now, in partnership with Joyner, national director of Village Square, I collect stories of something even better — those willing to push back on all the relentless incentives for doing otherwise, and befriend one of the “enemies.”
Although likely apocryphal, the story is told of Abraham Lincoln being rebuked by an old woman for his conciliatory attitude toward the South, which she felt should be “destroyed” after the Civil War. The president reportedly replied, “Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”
There is something downright revolutionary about true friendship, which Joseph Smith once described as “one of the grand fundamental principles” of the restored gospel. Such friendship, he added, was designed “to revolutionize and civilize the world, and cause wars and contentions to cease and men to become friends and brothers.”
“Let friendship redeem the Republic,” historian Patricia Nelson Limerick likewise said more recently. I see that possibility in the stories we’ve been collecting, all the way back to our republic’s earliest years.
It’s hard to beat the story of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, whose insults as competing presidential candidates would even make politicians today blush. Yet years later as older men, Adams opened a new correspondence, writing, “You and I ought not to die until we have explained ourselves to each other.”
That letter “broke the dam” and sparked more than a dozen years of letters that lasted right up until July 4, 1826, when they died the same day as friends, 50 years exactly after the nation they built was born.
You don’t have to be a history-making hero or a modern celebrity to continue this revolutionary tradition. Consider Caitlin and Lauran’s story — a “Red Mom and Blue Mom” on either side of our socio-political divide. Their friendship may not have changed history, but this text on the night of President Donald Trump’s surprising victory sure made a difference for Lauran’s family:
“I know this is a hard night for you guys. We are thinking of you. We love you.”
We’ve collected 23 other stories of “normal folks” across the country reaching across the divide and sparking something beautiful. This includes our own local story of Sutherland Institute’s Derek Monson and his warm collaboration with the Rev. Marian Edmonds-Allen, reflected in their written co-creations which help advance “fairness for all.”
Braver Angels has generated hundreds of such pairings, earning the right to be functionally considered our national “Mismatch.org” for red-blue friendship.
I’ve learned for myself how life-changing this can be. Phil, Arthur, Tracy, Dave, John, Liz, Joan, Debilyn, Elaine, Wendy, Nicole, Emily, Ross, Jay and Shelly have been life-changing for me. They don’t agree with me. But they love me. And they’ve taken away so much fear, while expanding my joy.
How about you? Has the ice-bucket challenge lost its excitement for you — and are you ready for something even more daring?
Then here’s a dare for the truly brave in 2023: Reach out to someone on the other side of America’s many divides — maybe someone from whom you’ve felt some estrangement in recent years. Send a text or video message in the tradition of Adams/Jefferson, seeking some fresh understanding and reconciliation.
And then see what happens.
If this all feels a little too challenging, take heart and have some courage. If it feels too simplistic, don’t forget that “by small and simple things” — like friendship — “great things are brought to pass.”
Even if none of these gestures alters the immediate course of America’s future, there’s something about keeping the fire burning for something that may only be fully appreciated long in the future. As journalist McKay Coppins wrote in his feature on Mitt Romney during the Donald Trump years, “In cynical times like these, someone has to serve as the guardian of lost causes.”
I can promise you one thing — this kind of interaction is not so scary and sometimes it’s just plain fun.
When asked if he has tried painting Clinton, Bush Jr., an amateur artist, pretended to be serious, saying, “I’ve tried and tried and tried.” Then he confessed, “No, I haven’t. I don’t want to ruin friendships.”
Clinton deadpanned in the interview, “He can’t get my bulbous nose right.”
Jacob Hess is the editor of Public Square Magazine and a former board member of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”