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Pundits & Prose

George Bush's Class Reunion

By Charles Bierbauer/CNN

COLLEGE STATION, Texas (Nov. 7) -- Jimmy Carter calls it a "small fraternity," those 42 men who have served as President of the United States. Reunions are of necessity even smaller.

Carter, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton joined George Bush here Thursday to commemorate Bush's service as the 41st President. Ronald Reagan, the only other living frat brother, was present in spirit for the opening of the George Bush Library on the campus of Texas A&M University.

These are celebrations. For all their past political differences, the four presidents showed how much more they have in common, including a good sense of humor.

"Anyone who runs for President is certainly adequately endowed with both ambition and ego," Carter said, adding one caveat. "Sometimes, there are factors that occur in our lives, unanticipated factors, that tend to reduce the level of ego."

Of the four, only Clinton was not booted out of the Oval Office by the American voters.

"I'm very grateful to President Clinton, who, fair and square, saw to it that I have a wonderful private life," said Bush to the laughter of thousands of Bush friends, family, colleagues and administration alumni basking in his honor and the warm Texas sun.

Clinton could, in turn, be grateful this day for Bush's steadfast support on fast-track trade legislation and dealing with Saddam Hussein.

Bush is still astonished that the Iraqi leader was not toppled -- "if you're brutal, you don't care about the lives of your people and the welfare of them, you can stay in power a long time" -- but proud of the way his administration conducted the 1991 Gulf War at a minimum cost of American lives.

Several Kuwaitis came to the dedication to show their admiration. The Kuwaiti government was among the million-dollar contributors to the more than $80 million cost of building the library and adjacent Bush School of Government and Public Service.

Raising money, it seems, does not stop when a President leaves the White House.

"We have to raise the money and then turn over the library to the federal government," Carter reminded. "None of it comes from the federal government." Carter seemed to have money on his mind.

"Another thing that we share is a need to earn a living after we leave the White House," Carter said, omitting the fact the ex-presidents get a not-insignificant pension and allowances. "Rosalyn asked me to announce, by the way, that our books are still on sale."

Somewhat astonishingly for a President whose money raising may have been carried to excess, Clinton picked up the Carter theme.

"Thank goodness he just reminded the whole world that Presidents have to raise all the money for their libraries," the current President said without a hint of embarrassment.

Clinton seemed envious of the spread A&M has provided for Bush. Clinton doubted he'd get as much land in Arkansas. "I'll have to build a high-rise."

Clinton may have been trying to be too friendly in this crowd.

Nancy Reagan brought tears of Republican nostalgia with an anecdote about her absent husband's weekly Oval Office lunches with his vice president. She recalled Reagan's first Thursday lunch back in California.

"It just didn't seem to be the same. As Ronnie sat down to his desk to have a sandwich the phone rang and the White House operator said President Bush was calling. And when he picked up the phone, Ronnie heard George's friendly voice saying that he, too, was about to eat lunch and it just wasn't the same without him. Ronnie was so touched."

Clinton, speaking shortly after Mrs. Reagan, said he hoped "some day Al Gore will be glad that we had lunch once a week."

It got a laugh, but was a reach in a largely Republican crowd. There were at least a handful of Republicans who might hope to short circuit Gore's ambition -- Dan Quayle, Colin Powell, Elizabeth Dole and George W. Bush, the President's son and governor of Texas.

This was a family reunion -- dozens of Bushes--and a reunion of those who served in and covered the Bush administration. (I was CNN's White House correspondent in both the Reagan and Bush years.) We rode a Union Pacific train from Houston to College Station, much as we'd ridden campaign trains in 1988 and 1992.

As they reminisced about campaigns won and lost, many of the one-time political junkies swore they'd never ride a campaign again. Those who were young and idealistic at the time wondered if they could do it again and what it would take to draw them back. A former campaign manager said he's lost interest in politics. With Democrats in the White House since 1993, Bush aides from top to bottom have fanned out to other pursuits.

It was loyalty to Bush that drew them back for this reunion.

Bush himself appears to have mellowed after the bitterness in which he left office. He still gets in a dig at those in the media whom he says he hardly misses. As we did a morning interview, Bush jabbed that the press had failed to credit him on the economy.

"It's fair to say we handed over an economy in robust growth, not in recession as was reported," he grumbled, then backed off. "It was my fault I did not communicate that."

The library is a fitting coda for Bush's decades in the public eye as congressman, ambassador, CIA director, Republican party chairman, vice president and President.

"I don't know if Lou Gehrig, my great idol, said it first, but I do know that he said it best--today, I feel like the luckiest person in the world," said Bush, breaking for just a moment his late mother's admonition against bragging.