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Keeping Their Daggers Drawn

President George W. Bush speaks at Grand Hall at Latvia University in Riga, Latvia, Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2006. Mr. Bush was attending a NATO summit and sought to enlist renewed commitments from the NATO allies that have deployed 32,000 troops to Afghanistan.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
So George W. Bush is now the official nominee of the party his father led eight years ago. And later this month, President Clinton will pass the torch to his designated successor, Al Gore.

But just because the new commanders have the green light to lead their troops into battle, don't look for the president and George Bush Senior to retire to the sidelines and become mere observers.

Instead, we should expect to hear, from both men, a few more barbs, not unlike the potshots they've been hurling at each other - and at their respective candidates - over the past few weeks.

They will keep their guns drawn because each of these guys is on a mission to complete unfinished business. And that's because each of them occupies a unique place in American history.

First, in regard to Bush, we should bear in mind that most other presidents who were voted of office generally had no recourse but to move on to other careers in either the public or private sector and, if they were so inclined, to write their memoirs.

Since the dawn of the republic, only one defeated president had the privilege of running again for the nation's highest office. That was Grover Cleveland who, after he lost the White House in 1888, recaptured it four years later.

Now, through his son, Bush is in a position to achieve a similar vindication and restoration - and he clearly relishes the opportunity.

(As has often been noted, if Governor Bush does get elected, he will be the first son to follow his father into the White House since John Quincy Adams. But by the time he was elected in 1824, Adams' père was almost 90 and had been out of public life for more than two decades.)

Mr. Clinton is also a special case because most previous presidents who left office after serving two full terms were serenely confident of their legacy regardless of who succeeded them. The two most recent examples are enough to make the point.

Dwight Eisenhower would have scoffed at the idea that his historical reputation was diminished because his vice president, Richard Nixon, failed to win the 1960 election. In fact, Eisenhower wasn't completely convinced that Nixon was the best man for the job.

Ronald Reagan had similar misgivings about his vice president, and he too would have chortled at the notion that George Bush's victory in 1988 was needed to shore up his place in history.

But then neither Ike nor Dutch had the misfortune of leaving the White House under the cloud of impeachment, and that's what separates them - and other two-term presidents - from You-Know-Who.

Mr. Clinton deeply believes he needs a Gore victory in November to provide assurance that he will mainly be remembered for his economic policies and other achievements - and not for the scandals that cast such a shadow over his years in the White House.

And you can add to these political and/or historical motives a profound personal animus. Bill Clinton and George Bush really don't like each ther, and that is stating the case very mildly.

The animosity they felt toward each other was plainly evident during the 1992 campaign, and it was no less apparent in the recent verbal punches they've thrown at each other.

You could almost hear the disdain and revulsion in Bush's voice when he talked about the "diminution of respect for the office of the presidency." Or when, in another interview, he warned that if the president persisted in his attacks on the Bush family, "I'm going to tell the nation what I think about him as a human being and a person."

And you could almost the venomous sarcasm in Mr. Clinton's voice when he asserted that after four years of Bush's presidency, "the country was in a ditch, and the politics of Washington, D.C., was like watching, I don't know, Wayne's World or something…"

We're talking serious mutual contempt here, and a lot of it has to do with class and background.

In his heart of hearts, George Bush the Elder regards Bill Clinton as a country hick who grew up in a dysfunctional family on the wrong side of the tracks. To have lost the presidency to this low-life cracker - and confessed adulterer - was almost more than he could bear. Thus, his urgent desire for revenge in the form of a Bush victory this fall.

And in his heart of hearts, Mr. Clinton regards his predecessor as a spoiled and whining aristocrat who, in the words of another Democratic critic, "was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple." To have his legacy jeopardized and undermined by the election of another pampered Bush elitist would be almost more than he can bear. Thus, his urgent need for a Gore victory this fall.

So, given all the givens, the case can be made that the last two men to live in the White House have almost as much at stake in the 2000 election as the candidates themselves.