This past Tuesday, President Barack Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, met in Tanzania. Their wives were appearing together at a Bush Institute event and the two husbands attended a ceremony honoring the Americans who were killed in a 1998 embassy bombing. It was the first time two American presidents have met on foreign soil to commemorate a terrorist attack. The meeting on a distant battlefield in the war against terrorists was a reminder of the scope and continuity of the presidency. Osama Bin Laden had ordered the 1998 attack, Bush had sought him, and Obama gave the orders to kill him. Both men struggled to hunt al-Qaida and its offshoots across the globe and at home. The similarities between their domestic spy programs have lately inspired their critics to morph their pictures into one. In a recent interview, Bush took credit for launching the PRISM program that Obama continued, then approvingly quoted his successor. “I think there needs to be a balance, and as the president explained, there is a proper balance.”
It was fitting then that this meeting took place in Africa. As partisanship in politics has increased and calcified, the number of venues for genuine bipartisan fellow-feeling has shrunk. We experience it in the hours after a terrorist attack or natural disaster. Otherwise, it’s up to the ex-presidents to keep the flame. They praise each other at library openings and as they work on global disasters like the earthquake in Haiti or tsunami in Japan. And then there’s Africa, the only other venue on Earth where presidents regularly collaborate and say nice things about each other.
Africa, a continent with pockets of disaster, spans both the presidency and the Presidents’ Club. It is a place where presidents can focus money and attention when they have trouble being effective at home. It also has special redemptive powers in the post-presidential years: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have continued their service and been praised for it. This puts Africa high on the very short list of things presidents can praise about their predecessors that are free from partisan controversy.
Africa is a useful stage for presidents as their power declines because the problems are so vast that the mere application of attention can help. Plus, a president can direct funds through the Export-Import Bank and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation that Congress doesn’t need to approve. That money, in a country where a little can go a long way, can be used to leverage private money. President Obama was in Africa launching Power Africa, a $7 billion plan to double access to power in sub-Saharan Africa. With two-thirds of the population in that region lacking electricity, the president offered this program as an opportunity to help lift the continent out of poverty.
George W. Bush was the first president whose Africa policy became a key part of his legacy. In 2003, he founded the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which guaranteed $15 million to be spent over the course of five years on prevention, treatment, and research on HIV/AIDS. He launched it in his first term as a priority — the continent was not a second-term afterthought — and he has made it a core part of his post-presidency. This trip is his third since leaving office and included a visit to help repair a women’s health clinic which his policies had helped open. Bono has praised Bush, as has Clinton, who said he had “personally seen the faces of some of the millions of people who are alive today” because of President Bush’s policies.
It was this bond over Africa that made Jimmy Carter the most emotional speaker at Bush’s library opening. During Bush’s time in office, Carter was a fierce critic of the president’s Middle East policy and the invasion of Iraq. It’s never easy for opponents from the opposite party to find specific praise at library unveilings, but Carter was effusive. “Mr. President, let me say that I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on Earth,” said the 39th president.
Though Africa is becoming a place for lame duck presidents to assert their influence, it is still not such a priority for officeholders that ex-presidents must stay away. (There is also plenty of suffering to alleviate.) So Africa has become the place where ex-presidents can do the most good without causing political headaches. The Clinton Global Initiative has tackled AIDS and the effects of drought. Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002 for his efforts as president on Middle East peace, but also for his work in stopping the violence in the Sudan and for the Carter Center’s focus on preventing disease in Africa’s poorest villages.
The common cause on Africa also allowed for an extended moment of sisterhood between first ladies this week. Laura Bush and Michelle Obama spoke at a conference of African First Ladies on women’s education, health, and economic empowerment. The two joked about their husbands in private moments, the ridiculous roles the press forces on them, and their efforts to work around that to gain attention for the causes they care about. “We take our bangs and we stand in front of important things that the world needs to see,” said the first lady after Laura Bush had made a joke about the press focus on her hairstyle. “Eventually, people stop looking at the bangs and they start looking at what we’re standing in front of.”
It was a warm and friendly exchange which included a shared joke about the confines of the office. Moderator Cokie Roberts said Martha Washington had called the White House the “Chief State Prison” — a sentiment shared by many presidents. Both women offered a knowing laugh when Michelle Obama affirmed there were “prison elements,” which she followed by saying, “It’s a really nice prison.” Laura Bush responded, “But with a chef.”
As if to prove their point about the distortions and restraints that come with the job, anti-Obama commentators characterized the quote as if Mrs. Obama were making a haughty whine. (The Drudge Report’s headline: “I’m in a ‘Prison.’ ”) Africa may be a place of bipartisan cooperation, but not for everyone.
John Dickerson is Slate’s chief political correspondent and author of “On Her Trail.”