There’s no telling what might happen now that Barack Obama and George W. Bush find themselves taking a long Air Force One flight from Washington to Johannesburg to attend the funeral of Nelson Mandela. But history suggests something will.
Historic funerals have a way of concentrating the minds of the men and women who make history. They’ve already had to plan their own funerals in uncomfortably vivid detail: Who comes, who speaks, where will all the satellite trucks park, do they want to be buried near their home or at their presidential library to be sure the pilgrims keep on coming?
As they write their eulogies for their fellow titans, they can’t help but imagine their own, review their challenges, hype their accomplishments, hide their regrets. These uncommon occasions to get together, if nothing else, are an opportunity to forgive.
When Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower shared a limo back from Arlington cemetery in November 1963, following the burial of John F. Kennedy, the two men, bitter enemies for more than a decade, finally found a way to set their animosity aside. It was Truman who, as the car pulled up to Blair House in the darkening Washington twilight, asked, “Ike, how about coming in for a drink?” The two men got to talking, and all the years of difficulty and pain melted away as the hours ticked by and the cocktails were refilled.
Defenses came crashing down again in 1981, when Ronald Reagan sent Richard Nixon, Jerry Ford and Jimmy Carter to Cairo to attend the funeral of Anwar Sadat. Each man admired Sadat; none particularly cared for either of the others. The ride over on the old Boeing 707 was long, crowded and awkward. But on the way home, Nixon peeled away on a different trip, and Carter and Ford dropped a half-decade of resentment and realized they had more in common than either imagined. They both hated raising money, they both dreaded 25 years of unexpected retirement, they both disliked Reagan. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship: over the next 25 years, Ford and Carter joined forces on two dozen projects. They became not just partners but real friends, each man eventually promising to deliver the eulogy of the other, depending on who died first. That honor fell to Carter when Ford died in late 2006.
In April 2005, Bush invited his father and Bill Clinton to fly to Rome for the funeral of Pope John Paul II. Clinton knew the older Bush well, but it was only on the flight to Rome that he really got to know his son; they talked a lot of politics on the way over, spent a lot of time in conversation after the funeral at the American embassy in Rome, and Clinton told aides afterward how much he enjoyed it. After Bush left office, the two men for a time became unlikely, part-time business partners, giving speeches together for substantial fees, since two Presidents — especially the two bipolar twins of the baby boom — are better than one.
Obama and Bush aren’t close, and it may be years — or maybe never — before they can get past their pasts. Obama blamed Bush for a lot of things during the 2008 campaign; Bush for his part has kept his mouth shut about Obama — “He deserves my silence,” Bush likes to say a vow he has faithfully kept, at least in public. But there have been moments of modest coordination over the past five years, and it is a safe bet that the trip will strengthen the relationship. And it’s a delicious irony to have Hillary Clinton on board this flight; the former Secretary of State knows as well as anyone that the longer a President sits in the big chair, the more regard he tends to have for all his predecessors.
Her husband will join Obama, Bush, as well as Carter, in South Africa.