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The unlikely friendship of George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton revealed the virtues of humility

Steve Yount, a senior fellow with the Denison Forum, is a former newspaper editor and public-relations executive working with Christian ministries.

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Former Presidents Bill Clinton, left, and George H.W. Bush joke during a press conference in Houston Monday, Sept. 5, 2005, before meeting with Hurricane Katrina refugees.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton, left, and George H.W. Bush joke during a press conference in Houston Monday, Sept. 5, 2005, before meeting with Hurricane Katrina refugees. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

George H. W. Bush had reason to hate Bill Clinton. Clinton defeated Bush in the 1992 presidential election, only to be impeached after lying about an affair he had in the White House. 

And yet, after leaving office, they became the most unlikely of friends—a lesson in humility for the rest of us as we venture into an increasingly acrimonious public square. 

Jean Becker, author of The Man I Knew: The Amazing Story of George H. W. Bush’s Post-Presidency, said the first hint of the growing friendship between the two ex-presidents came when Bush gave kind remarks at the dedication of the Clinton library in 2004. Then in 2005, at President George W. Bush’s urging, they visited Asian countries that had been hit by a tsunami. 

On the flight over, Clinton insisted that Bush, the older man by more than twenty years, take the only bedroom on the plane. Bush was beginning to show symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and Clinton stayed by his side on the trip, steadying him when necessary. 

At one state dinner, Bush felt they had stayed too long, but Clinton continued to talk. Bush took him by the arm and said, “Bill, time to go.” 

“Yes, sir,” Clinton responded, and they headed for the door. 

“For his part, President Bush treated the man who denied him a second term with great respect and kindness,” Becker wrote. “And sometimes like a son.” 

In some ways, Barbara Bush believed, her husband was like the father Clinton never had. Clinton broke down in tears at Bush’s state funeral at the National Cathedral in 2018. 

Humility means listening

When we show humility, we model Christlike behavior. Jesus humbled himself by becoming a man and dying in service to others while asking God to forgive the people who crucified him (Luke 23:34). 

But pride is more common in public life than the humility Bush and Clinton showed. Sadly, our ways are not God’s ways. James 4:6 says, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” 

“In humility, we can accept those with whom we disagree without approving their viewpoint, beliefs, or behaviors,” said Dr. Tony Beckett, a leader with Christian Business Men’s Connection and a former teacher with Back to the Bible. “That can change everything when they realize you are not focused on pointing out where they are wrong but are willing to learn why they think as they do. Humility opens the door to relationships that allow meaningful conversation.” 

As Christians, bent on winning the culture wars, we often tend to demonize our opponents. But if we give in to hate or resentment, we lose the ability to influence. 

Humility is not to doubt the truth of one’s own beliefs, but to recognize the limits of what we can prove to others,” theologian Dr. Timothy Keller said. “Even if your Christian, Muslim, or secular views of the world and morality are true, there is no way to prove them to all rational persons. And that should humble you.” 

Humility means honest self-assessment

Humility also means acknowledging our shortcomings. 

“We humans are often wrong about the things we perceive, because we are fallible,” Dr. Andrew T. Walker wrote in Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age. “No human is a perfect arbiter of truth. This means we cannot impose truth on others; truth must be discovered after thorough, rigorous examination. We plead and persuade. And this means we need to leave room for people to search for truth, to err, to self-correct. . . .We Christians believe the Word of God declares the truth; we have confirmation of the Spirit’s work inside us; but we are still imperfect creatures who ‘see in a mirror dimly’ (1 Cor. 13:12).” 

On Good Friday, everything seemed lost. But redemption came on Sunday morning.  

Humility means admitting mistakes

And there’s always the possibility we might be wrong. God does not make mistakes, but Christians sure do. History bears witness to the church’s complicity in racism, sexual abuse, and religious persecution in the US, without even delving into its record in other countries. 

“One of the most significant effects of increasing polarization has been increased tribal certainty that one’s preferred side of a debate is right—and everything the other side offers is wrong,” Bryan Weynand wrote for The Gospel Coalition. “As Christians called to live and think humbly (Eph. 4:2), we must be willing to have our worldly paradigms shifted and bubbles popped, even when it’s uncomfortable.” 

Weynand wrote that we should acknowledge “the pervasive effects of sin” on any side of a contentious issue. We should love people, even those who violently disagree with us, and boldly speak the truth yet realize our limitations. 

“Recognizing that the outcome of all our controversies is in God’s hand – that in some sense he wills or permits people to hold different views on these issues – should radically temper our emotional investment in the victory of our preferred side,” Dr. Jeffrey Bilbro wrote in Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News. “Such a recognition would certainly dampen the fury with which Christians all too often fight ‘culture wars.’”   

French thinker Blaise Pascal said, “We act as if it were our mission to make truth triumph whilst it is only our mission to combat for it.” Or, in Bilbro’s words, “We should be passionate in working for what we perceive to be the good, but we should not be upset if our cause faces setbacks or receives bad news.” 

That will happen in our fallen world. “Christianity’s influence waxes and wanes,” Walker wrote. 

We should be righteous without being self-righteous, knowing our righteousness comes from Christ and not ourselves. Ultimate victory is in his hands, not ours—a lesson in humility if ever there was one. That shouldn’t dim our passion one bit, merely temper it with wisdom.

Humility means influence

If we act humbly and love people, as Bush and Clinton did, we can make an eternal impact. 

Their relief work for victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina drew widespread praise, with ABC News naming them its People of the Year in 2005. They became something of a curiosity. Barbara Bush called them the “odd couple,” and TIME magazine published a story about their friendship after her husband died. 

“I think people see George and me,” Clinton said, “and they say, ‘That is the way our country ought to work.’” 

That’s the way God’s people should work, too.