- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 30, 2009

TORONTO | Former President George W. Bush, appearing with former President Bill Clinton in what turned out to be an amiable and comedic event, once again said he would not criticize President Obama — then proceeded to do just that.

“International pressure — diplomacy only works if there’s leverage,” Mr. Bush said. “It sounds wonderful — ‘Let’s go talk to people’ — but you better have leverage in order to make diplomacy work.”

During his campaign, Mr. Obama vowed to open dialogues with rulers of rogue nations, such as Iran and Cuba. Since taking office, he lifted all restrictions on people to visit relatives in Cuba or send them money — a significant shift in U.S. policy. He also spoke amiably with Venezualan dictator Hugo Chavez, a vocal critic of the United States.

Asked if he agreed with opening dialogue with Cuba, Mr. Bush smiled and said to laughter, “Thank you for bringing up President Obama.”

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“Holding that embargo in place is important,” he said. By easing it, “you’re propping up a regime who puts people in prison based upon their political views. So my view is, if they empty out the prisons and give people a voice, then we change our strategy with Cuba, but not until then.”

But Mr. Bush sought to label his read as uncritical.

“Anything I say is not to be critical of my successor. I didn’t like it when my predecessors criticized me. He never did, by the way,” Mr. Bush said, nodding toward Mr. Clinton. “He was respectful. Can’t say that for everyone of them. And I didn’t appreciate it, and I’m not going to do the same thing to him. There’s plenty of critics in American society. I think you heard a few,” he said again to Mr. Clinton before adding with a laugh: “I know I did.”

The two former presidents, who led the United States for the past 16 years, met Friday at the Toronto Convention Center for an event dubbed a “conversation.” Both looked rested and tan, and both had the crowd in stitches in their opening statements.

“We both used to believe in free speech,” Mr. Bush said to roars of laughter from a crowd of 6,000, all of whom paid hundreds of dollars to attend the event. No one will say how much each will take home, but estimates run as high as $150,000 a piece for the two-hour appearance.

For his part, Mr. Clinton said that on Cuba policy, he agrees with Mr. Obama’s Secretary of State — who happens to be his wife, former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton. “He hit it out of the park with that one, an amazing wise appointment,” Mr. Clinton said to laughter.

“I actually supported what President Obama did,” he said, noting that he also agrees with the current preisdent’s plan to engage rogue dictators.

“We deal with a lot of countries that we don’t agree with on everything. I think it’d be a terrible mistake, for example, if we were to say walk away from China — they still put people in jail for their political views. I don’t agree with that. On the other hand, Cuba’s our neighbor, they’re here, they ought to be part of this hemisphere, they ought to be part of our future. They have done a lot of good things,” Mr. Clinton said.

During his opening statment, Mr. Clinton said it took a while to get used to the fact that “nobody plays a song when I enter a room now,” noting that “Hail to the Chief” once hailed his entrance. “The great thing about not being president is I can say whatever I want,” he said, but noted that now, “nobody cares what I say.”

The event was only the second appearance by Mr. Bush since leaving office; his first was also in Canada, in Calgary. Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, is an old hand at the game — he did, after all, haul in $31 million in speaking fees between 2001 and 2005.

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