Bill and I went through two tough campaigns. But it seems like to me it's a lot less civil now. —George W. Bush
SALT LAKE CITY — Former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton sounded more like old friends than former political opponents during their visit to Utah on Monday, sharing a few laughs and praising each other's accomplishments while in office.
"I like him, and I love his father," Clinton told a packed ballroom at the Grand America Hotel, referring to the 43rd and 41st presidents of the United States.
"Oh, he likes me and loves my father," Bush quipped.
"Yeah, well, what can I say? He played golf with me," Clinton said.
Those kinds to playful exchanges were sprinkled throughout the former presidents' comments during a moderated discussion at the Outlook Leadership Conference, an annual gathering of executives in the convenience and petroleum retailing industry.
In addition to stories about their experiences while in office and in the years since, the former presidents issued a joint call for civility in Washington, D.C., and on the campaign trail.
"Politics has always been tough," Bush said. "Bill and I went through two tough campaigns. But it seems like to me it's a lot less civil now."
Bush cited the expansion of the "blogosphere" in the years since he and Clinton left office as a perpetrator of that incivility.
"The blogosphere allows for anonymity," he said. "You can say anything you want. It's created a damn toxic environment."
Between blogs and cable news channels providing 24-hour political coverage, particularly in an election year, Americans end up in "a constant state of anxiety-ridden attention deficit disorder," Clinton said.
The Democratic president recounted an experience when he made a positive comment about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during a CNN interview and then was blasted by liberal bloggers and cable news shows about how he "abandoned (his) party" and "undercut" President Barack Obama.
Clinton had shared a story about how Romney, then the governor of Massachusetts, worked with him following the 42nd president's two terms in office to help save City Year, a nonprofit organization focused on keeping students on track to graduate high school.
"(President Bush) was under a lot of pressure from the Republican right to get rid of it," Clinton said. "I called Romney and said, 'Please help us save this. Would you call the president?' And he did."
Even though Clinton stated he was supporting Obama's re-election in the same interview, his comments about Romney got the bulk of the attention on the Internet and cable news shows, he said.
"The test is not the arguments you make," Clinton said. "The test is whether you're badmouthing somebody."
Both Bush and Clinton said it's time for the culture of incivility in politics to stop.
"If you expect the discourse to be better, I would look very carefully at the discoursers," Bush said. "The danger in democracy is that people who should be participating as candidates — and, for that matter, as supporters and/or voters — don't. The question is, can we break the cycle? I certainly hope so."
One place to start, Bush said, is for voters to "elect people who will not denigrate their offices by engaging in personal attacks and mudslinging."
"Somehow, we've got to get a hold of ourselves and get centered again," Clinton added. "The voters have to, too. You can't keep rewarding this stuff."