NEW ORLEANS — Former presidents George H.W. Bush and William J. Clinton — unlikely collaborators in a shared campaign — promoted their fundraising efforts for hurricane-hit Gulf Coast communities and supplied some comic relief, too, as they took center stage Saturday at a National Association of Realtors conference in New Orleans.
Bush has not been a stranger to the housing market — he has lived in about 30 homes during his 60 years of marriage. “Barbara likes to say, ‘Thirty houses in 60 years (of marriage) means you can never hold a job,'” Bush joked, noting that he lost one of those houses — the White House — in 1992 when Clinton came along.
His first house cost $8,000, “which these days probably doesn’t even cover the commission you guys charge,” he quipped. He also tossed out an off-color “ugly woman” joke about a protester in San Francisco, explained why he chose not to dance on the Berlin Wall during the days of its collapse, and said he still can’t seem to shirk the puking incident involving the prime minister of Japan — “I was hoping the statute of limitations ran out on that baby.”
Hurricane Katrina was like an “American tsunami,” Bush said, devastating New Orleans and cutting a wide swathe of destruction across the Gulf Coast. While he and Clinton have had their share of political differences, their collaboration has been a marriage made in heaven for their common cause of disaster relief. The duo were a smash hit in raising millions for the global tsunami disaster, and so far they have raised about $129 million for Katrina-related recovery efforts.
The response to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund “was nothing short of overwhelming,” Bush said, with about 60,000 donors contributing. Schools, colleges and places of worship are among the beneficiaries of the fund. “I guarantee you the money is put to good use,” he said. “We make sure every dime is transparent.”
Bush credited Realtor volunteerism with playing a role in the recovery efforts — members of the National Association of Realtors raised about $18 million in immediate relief after Katrina hit and have supplied more money and manpower to support the construction of 54 homes in Gulf Coast communities.
“Even today mere words and pictures still can’t capture the enormity of the suffering,” Bush said, adding that it is a block-by-block battle to bring back neighborhoods and communities.”
The fundraising effort has been “one of the most important and rewarding projects I have worked on,” he said, adding, “There are some things more important than partisan politics.” That comment drew loud applause and cheers from the audience of real estate professionals.
While the recent election gives the Democrats control of Congress, Bush said he is encouraged that Congress and the Republican White House can have a healthy and potentially fruitful relationship. “It is kind of like an arranged marriage,” he said, noting that it’s still possible to “get together and get stuff done.”
Clinton spoke next, joking that he would be spending the rest of his life playing the straight man to Bush. He also commented on the longevity of Bush. “What is he, 82? One hundred fifty?”
Clinton said his first home cost $20,500, with a $3,500 down payment and a monthly mortgage payment of $174. He bought the house, he said, before he married Hillary, and they were married in that house. He told her, “I just bought that house … I guess you’ll have to marry me.” They spent $34,000 for their next home, in Little Rock, Ark.
The couple’s rustic home in New York has turned him into something of a handyman, Clinton said — “I am a qualified civil engineer now.”
It is to the Realtor leadership’s credit that they brought the annual conference and trade show to New Orleans this year, Clinton said. “I want to thank you for bringing this meeting to New Orleans and showing that this community is coming back quickly,” he said.
An estimated 30,000 Realtors were expect to attend the conference, and association leaders grappled with the decision last year to choose New Orleans as a host — there were questions about whether the city would be ready and able to host such a large event. The Realtors conference is the biggest conference held in the city since Katrina.
Perhaps Washington, D.C., can learn some lessons from the successful collaboration he has had with Bush, Clinton said. “The power of two is far better than the power of one,” he said, adding that the election could be “a source of unity, not disunity. I hope the president and the new Congress can find common ground.”
About half of New Orleans’ population and 80 percent of its workforce have returned, Clinton said. Many of the schools that have reopened are charter schools that feature heavy involvement at the local level, he said, and perhaps there are lessons to be learned from those schools.
There are still housing problems that need to be addressed in New Orleans, Clinton said, and there is “unbelievable thirst” to make the city whole again. He cited examples of working-class contributors to the ongoing grassroots fund-raising effort.
“If millions of you decide to do the same thing at the same time, you can change the world,” he said.
He promoted a strategy of rebuilding New Orleans as an environmentally friendly, energy-efficient “green” community. “This city is a unique part of America’s history. It also, I believe, is a unique part of America’s future. I hope you will help build it back better.”
During a question and-answer session, Clinton said Hillary hasn’t revealed to him whether she plans to run for president, though he said he’d support any decision she makes. Bush joked that he could picture Clinton “walking like Prince Phillip behind the queen,” and said that no matter the decision, it likely will not affect his fund-raising efforts with Clinton.
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