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Previous occupants haunt Oval Office Carter, Clinton offer their help, but Bush would prefer that his predecessors butt out of foreign policy
By Susan Page

WASHINGTON -- The Saudi crown prince was visiting at a sensitive moment for the Middle East, so the White House plotted every detail of his weekend trip to Texas. After meeting with President Bush at his ranch, Crown Prince Abdullah was feted by the president's father at his presidential library in College Station.

Then, to the dismay of White House planners, he saw an unscheduled and unexpected visitor: Bill Clinton.

The former president, in Houston for a fundraiser and staying at the same posh hotel as the Saudi leader, headed upstairs after midnight for a private chat that had been arranged only a few hours earlier. Their 90-minute meeting didn't end until 2 a.m.

Presidents are members of one of the world's most exclusive fraternities, those who know firsthand the challenges of the Oval Office. You might think that an incumbent would see his predecessors as valuable resources, as repositories of knowledge and experience, as potential advisers and envoys.

You would be wrong.

Bush seems to have the same jaundiced view toward some of his predecessors that many previous White House occupants have held toward theirs. His aides express exasperation about Clinton's impromptu session with Abdullah two weeks ago, at a time of delicate negotiations and evolving policy. No administration official sat in on the meeting.

And they are annoyed by former president Jimmy Carter's trip to Cuba, which began Sunday with a red-carpet reception. Bush officials see the visit, the first by a sitting or former U.S. president since the 1959 revolution, as a public-relations boon for Fidel Castro and a forum for Carter to espouse closer economic and diplomatic ties with Cuba -- views that conflict with administration policy.

Unlike officials who are appointed by and beholden to the current president, former presidents have no obligation to toe the administration line, of course. They often have their own political agendas and policy views. And they can command attention at home and abroad to have them heard.

All that is precisely why presidents are more likely to see their predecessors as mischief-makers than mediators. The fear: Former presidents will send mixed messages to foreign leaders, blunder into sensitive issues, take credit if something is achieved and perhaps even contribute to an impression that the current president can't manage things by himself.

If former presidents complain that their successors don't appreciate what they still have to offer, current presidents complain that their predecessors don't realize they're no longer in office.

''Presidents aren't eager for their predecessors to assert themselves and take away the spotlight from the man in the White House,'' historian Robert Dallek says. ''What it suggests is somewhere or another the current incumbent is not up to handling the job and needs help dealing with an issue that has escaped his control.''

Reps. Lois Capps, D-Calif., and Jim Leach, R-Iowa, circulated a letter on Capitol Hill last month urging Bush to send his father, Carter and Clinton as a high-level delegation to the Mideast. Each had scored some success on the Mideast during his term. The administration said thanks, but no thanks.

''I don't have a role for either of them at the moment,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell said when asked about a peacemaking assignment for Carter and Clinton. ''But I'm pleased that they continue to keep their interest in the region.''

Only once before in U.S. history have so many former presidents been around. When Abraham Lincoln took office in 1861, five of his predecessors were alive. Then, the limits of 19th-century transportation and communication meant that presidents who left office typically also left the public stage.

Now, with longer life spans, instant communications and a celebrity culture, former presidents never seem to fade away. Never before has there been such a complicated collection of past rivals still on the scene. There are five living former presidents, four of them in good health. Two are determined to carve out roles for themselves in the world. One happens to be the current president's father.

'Here's what Dad thinks'

The elder Bush is the only former president who is now engaged as an adviser to and informal envoy for the White House, although he never talks about it. Associates say he meets regularly with foreign leaders he got to know during his long career in government -- Abdullah among them -- but the sessions are rarely publicized.

In a USA TODAY interview in February, the elder Bush said he was ''not in the press conference or the op-ed business.'' His son ''doesn't need to have people rushing down to say, 'Here's what your Dad thinks' or (to have) some nuance blown up into a big editorial,'' he added. During the 2000 campaign and the early days of the administration, some aides were sensitive about any suggestion that Bush was leaning on his father.

While he doesn't volunteer advice, the 77-year-old Bush says, ''If he said, 'What do you think about this or that?' I would tell him.''

Among the other former presidents, Ronald Reagan, 91, has been sidelined by Alzheimer's disease. Gerald Ford, 88, who occasionally engages in public policy initiatives, lives quietly in California.

But Carter and Clinton hadn't reached retirement age by the time they moved out of the White House: Carter was 56 and Clinton 54. Each is eager to burnish his mixed White House legacy with post-presidential achievements.

The two Democrats have been the most activist former presidents since Teddy Roosevelt. After leaving the White House in 1909, the former Rough Rider formed the Bull Moose Party, ran unsuccessfully for another term and requested a wartime commission to fight in World War I. (Woodrow Wilson, who remembered all too well that Roosevelt had called him a coward for keeping the nation out of the war, turned him down.)

Since Clinton left office 16 months ago, he has visited 30 countries on six continents. He lunched last Wednesday in New York with former South African president Nelson Mandela; he leaves Saturday on a trip with stops in Japan, China, Singapore, Brunei and New Zealand.

Clinton has shown a Zelig-like knack for being in world hot spots at critical moments. Just after last year's standoff with China over a downed U.S. spy plane, he was in Beijing and met with President Jiang Zemin. Early this year, as violence was escalating between Israelis and Palestinians, he was touring the Mideast. Some say the Saudi peace plan was hatched during his meeting with Crown Prince Abdullah on that trip.

Before traveling abroad, Clinton informs the White House of his plans and often is briefed by Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice. When he returns, he sometimes relays his observations to them.

He says he would be happy to take on a role in the Mideast if the president wanted him to do so. And a North Korean official suggested last month that Clinton might be an apt mediator between Pyongyang and Washington.

Neither high-profile assignment is likely. Bush took office criticizing Clinton's stewardship of foreign policy, including his last-ditch push for peace in the Middle East. Some advisers close to Bush still view Clinton with dyspepsia, as an interloper who denied the president's father a second term.

When the White House asked Clinton to take on his first formal duty since leaving office, it involved a less substantive task to a less critical place. He will be a member of the official delegation sent to remote East Timor this month to celebrate its independence from Indonesia.

Welcome to Havana

Clinton says he's careful to avoid criticizing Bush or complicating his job -- in part, aides say, because he remembers how irked he was as president when Carter injected himself into conflicts in North Korea and elsewhere. Since leaving office, Carter has won wide praise for monitoring elections, mediating disputes and addressing problems of poverty and human rights.

But he also has riled officials in the last administration and the current one. An op-ed column he wrote in The New York Times suggested Bush hadn't done enough to stem the violence in the Mideast.

Then there's Cuba.

Bush was traveling in Latin America this spring when he learned from news reports that Carter planned to visit Cuba. The Carter Center, which is sponsoring the trip, submitted the required application, and the Treasury Department approved it. But administration officials have done their best to shape the agenda.

''This would be a good opportunity for former president Carter to remind President Castro of the need to bring freedom and opportunity and democracy to the people of Cuba,'' White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says. A few days before Carter left, the administration for the first time publicly accused Cuba of developing biological weapons.

This week, the White House hopes to minimize attention to Carter's trip by deflecting queries and not volunteering comments. That approach may be tested on Tuesday, though, when he delivers a televised address to the Cuban people. Just like a president.Cover storyCover story

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