TORONTO (Reuters) - Former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton traded jokes about life after the Oval Office and took turns defending each other as they shared a stage in Toronto on Friday to discuss global affairs.
In a sold-out event billed as their first conversation on stage since they left office, Bush and Clinton disagreed politely about a couple of issues, backed each other on others and refused to criticize anything current President Barack Obama was doing.
Bush’s vice president, Dick Cheney, has emerged as one of Obama’s toughest critics and the staunchest defender of the Bush administration’s policies after the Sept. 11 attacks.
But Bush, saying he had hated it when former presidents criticized him after he took office, said, “Anything I say is not to be critical of my successor ... (there are) plenty of critics in American society.”
Bush, who has stayed mostly out of the public eye since leaving the White House in January, said he was enjoying the freedom of being a private citizen but thanked the Toronto organizers “for giving me something to do.”
The two-term Republican president from Texas said he had been taking on chores dictated by his wife, Laura, and had discovered the challenges of cleaning up after pets as he walked the family dog, Barney, around their Dallas neighborhood.
“There I was, the former president, with a plastic bag on my hand, picking up that which I had dodged for eight solid years,” Bush said to laughs from the 6,000-strong audience.
Bush said he had phoned his mother to tell her about the event and she responded that Clinton had been spending so much time with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, in charity efforts that Clinton was “like my son.”
Turning to Clinton, Bush joked, “So brother, it is good to be with you.”
For his part, Clinton, a Democrat who was Bush’s predecessor in office, said his new challenge was not saying anything that would get his wife, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in trouble.
“No one cares what I say unless I mess up. ... I have to think about what they will ask Hillary and President Obama tomorrow if I mess up,” Clinton said.
Clinton, wearing a beige suit and red tie, and Bush, in navy blue, shook hands as they met on the stage. During the two-hour event, each made a short speech and took turns answering questions about global affairs.
A couple hundred people protested the event in downtown Toronto, aiming most of their anger at Bush’s policies, including the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The moderator, former New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, asked the politicians about Afghanistan, Cuba, Darfur, Rwanda and gay rights but conceded at the end of the event that he had not been able to spark a battle between the two former leaders.
“Presidents 2, McKenna nothing,” he said.
The cordial and conversational meeting between Bush and Clinton was remarkable mostly for its warmth. They disagreed on gay rights and the impact of the Iraq war on Afghanistan, but otherwise defended each other’s record and insisted the presidency was harder than it looked.
“If we have an argument up here, you’ll think it’s cute,” said Clinton, but he warned at the start of the event they would do their best to thwart expectations for a fight.
They did just that. After Clinton lamented his failure to prevent the genocide in Rwanda as the “greatest regret of my presidency,” Bush chided him for playing down the difficulty of putting together a multilateral coalition to stop tragedies.
“I think you’re being tough on yourself,” he told Clinton, explaining he, too, had been unable to convince a multinational group to stop the killings and starvation in Darfur, Sudan.
On Sudan, Clinton defended Bush, saying: “Sudan is a complicated country. ... I think he did all he could do.”
Reporting by Andrea Hopkins; Editing by Peter Cooney
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