It has become a tradition of the modern White House for presidents to turn to the expertise and counsel of their predecessors in times of great need and crisis. And it is a good practice for both pragmatic and political reasons.
President Barack Obama has received some criticism, mostly from the left, for his decision to call upon former President George W. Bush to assist in helping to raise funds for the relief effort in Haiti. But it is smart to reach across the rancorous divide in Washington to demonstrate that in American public life there can be a second act.
Working with former President Bill Clinton, Bush ought to be a valuable resource to tap into his vast network of family, political and corporate associations to raise the huge amount of money needed to begin to assist in rebuilding Haiti. Americans have an enormous capacity to give in times of tremendous need. As of the weekend, the American Red Cross had collected pledges of $103 million, $22 million of which was raised through an ingenious text-messaging campaign. And the ClintonBushHaiti Fund.org is one mouse click away. Enlisting the star power of ex-presidents broadens the net and underscores the need for immediacy in providing relief.
Former presidents often have embraced the opportunity to serve and reburnish their images. In 1947, Harry Truman turned to much-scorned Herbert Hoover to chair a commission to streamline government. Ronald Reagan's first official act as president was to call upon Jimmy Carter to bring the American hostages home from Iran. Since then Carter, much reviled while in office, has taken on numerous diplomatic and humanitarian missions at the behest of presidents. Even Richard Nixon undertook a number of diplomatic assignments in the years following his Watergate disgrace and resignation from office. And it was George W. Bush who reached out to the tarnished Clinton, a pariah in Republican circles, to join his father in working on relief efforts in tsunami-ravaged Asia in 2005.
Obama came into office a year ago pledging to untie the Gordian knot of intransigent political partisanship gripping Washington. Appointing George W. Bush to assist the relief efforts will hardly defuse the partisan bickering, but it sets an admirable example.