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Former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton discuss foreign affairs in Toronto on May 29, 2009.


The verdict at the end of the historic conversation between two former U.S. Presidents was clear: George W. Bush, the 43rd president of the United States, can tell a joke but is not the buffoon he's made out to be. William J. Clinton, the 42nd, is smarter and more thoughtful.

Mr. Bush is Leno, Mr. Clinton is Letterman.

But neither of them has the faintest clue that the U.S. government is making it harder and harder for Canadians to cross into the United States. The two men who have run the country for the past sixteen years still seem to think we have a passport-less border.

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In a vast convention hall in downtown Toronto Friday, before a virtually sold-out crowd of more than 5,000 people and a motley crowd of demonstrators outside insisting the statesmen were both war criminals, Messrs. Bush and Clinton sat on a stage, cracked wise and compared views on half a dozen issues that affect Canada. There the verdict was: The Americans know we're here, but they have other things to think about.

The two-hour session started late, behind massive security - there were almost as many cops, RCMP, convention security and demonstration marshals as there were demonstrators - because Mr. Clinton returned late from a morning of golf with Ed Clark, the chairman of TD Financial Group, the lead sponsor of the confab.

The crowd, mostly middle-aged, well-heeled people who could afford tickets that cost anywhere from $185 (acres of seats at the back) to $2,500 (gets you a photo with the two ex-prezes), passed the wait in an eager buzz. There was a lot of talk about how much money the event's organizers were making. "I figure 5,000 or 6,000 people at an average of $250 a ticket," one cheery redhead said. "They're grossing a million two, a million five." Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton are reputed to have been paid $300,000 each for their participation.

The audience was ready for fireworks, but the message of the afternoon was sober: Being president is more complicated, and more impossible, than anyone thinks.

First Mr. Clinton started with a few jokes. "I'm amazed that President Bush is here doing this. It takes a while to figure out you're not President." He claimed what he missed most from his Executive Office years was not Air Force One or Camp David, but that "nobody plays the song [Hail to the Chief] when you go through the room." A young boy recently referred to him as "Hillary's wife" - but, he added, "I think I'll forego the operation."

He then settled into the global themes he has emphasized for the past half-dozen years: how every citizen can engage with the world, in small but important ways.

Mr. Bush didn't disagree with what Mr. Clinton said, but where Mr. Clinton presented his thinking on issues, his intellectual progress through a dilemma, Mr. Bush presented his conclusions - sometimes as if they were the foregone variety.

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He too had jokes. The crowed laughed more at them than Mr. Clinton's.

"Welcome to the Bill and George show," he began. "I want thank everyone for giving me something to do." He too claimed his wife now bosses him around, and that he has for the first time been forced to scoop the poop - "picking up what I had dodged for eight years" - of his black Scottish terrier Barney. "He looks like a moving monopoly piece," Mr. Bush quipped.

"Clinton and I used to believe in free speech," he then said, referring to their gargantuan fees. "So thanks for coming. We are glad you are here."

From there he went on to repeat his familiar mantras: "I believe it's in the interest of people in free nations to strive for freedom," he said. "Freedom brings opportunity, and opportunity brings peace."

But once the two men began their confab with Frank McKenna, the former premier of New Brunswick and ambassador to the United States, things got more revealing - when he could keep them on topic.

"They're hard dogs to keep on the porch," Mr. McKenna said.

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"We're supposed to be the rednecks," Mr. Clinton replied.

Mr. McKenna asked whether the war in Iraq had not distracted the United States from the more relevant fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, where until recently Canada has been battling alone. Mr. Clinton replied that Pakistan has been the real distraction. The "vast majority of Afghans want to be free - they don't want the Taliban."

Mr. Bush, on the other hand, resorted to the impregnable rhetoric that has made the last four years lonely for Canadian soldiers. "I don't buy the premise that our attention was distracted. Getting rid of Saddam Hussein makes the world a more peaceful place." The larger question, of whether Saddam was the right target, he chose not to address.

On Cuba, Mr. Bush claimed that in supporting the island nation, Canada backs a regime that puts people in prison. Mr. Clinton replied that China puts people in prison too, but that it would be a mistake not to support them.

Mr. McKenna also asked Mr. Clinton why he had not intervened in Rwanda during the 1994 massacre that resulted in the death of 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

"It's one of the two or three things I regret most about my presidency," Mr. Clinton replied. "By the time we thought of doing something about it, it was over." Mr. Clinton had to stop speaking momentarily, to regain his composure.

Mr. Bush took a harder line. "Diplomacy only works if there's leverage," he said, and blamed the ineffectiveness of the UN. "I think you're being a little tough on yourself," he said to his ex-presidential colleague. Even as president, Mr. Bush said, "you can't just say, we'll send 20,000 troops," and have them there in a week.

"I don't think we could have saved 800,000 lives," Mr. Clinton countered. But "I think I might have saved 250,000 to 400,000. And that's something I have to live with for the rest of my life."

But it was the passport issue that stood out. Mr. McKenna lamented that this week, for the first time ever, Canadians have to present passports at the border. "We've never had a shot fired in anger in 200 years," he said. "And we feel that's being torn apart right now." The question was passionate enough for Mr. Bush to say: "A hell of a speech. You should get back in the arena."

But when Mr. Bush claimed total ignorance of the problem, there were gasps from the audience. "It's an hour and a half wait at the border," a man hissed in the middle of the room.

"We had the EZ Pass cards," Mr. Bush said, holding up his hands. "I don't know what happened to the project. I'll be frank with you, Frank" - the audience laughed - "I don't know anything about the passport issue."

Mr. Clinton admitted the stickiness of the U.S. border was news to him too. "I told Frank the other day, I don't know anything about this, when he mentioned it."

It was an odd moment. The man who was the President of the United States until five months ago, and the former president who is married to the current secretary of state, don't know about a problem that has been afflicting Canadian cross-border travellers for at least three years. So much for all that cross-border love.

Shortly after that it was over. "I think it's fair to say that the score is at least Presidents 2, McKenna nothing," Mr. McKenna said. Leave the jokes to the Americans. But remember your passport.

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