Commentary: Images of Clinton and Bush may be helped by Haiti mission

At this point, when the Red Cross is estimating tens of thousands of Haitians lost their lives in an earthquake Tuesday, it is getting easier to see several silver linings peeking through the overwhelming sorrow of the event.

I don't want to diminish the horror or tragedy of that disaster, but just hearing the names of President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush used in the same sentence for something good actually brought hope to what seems like a hopeless situation.

Their union provides the perfect image of what Americans do best when America is working according to its core beliefs — we forget about our differences long enough to highlight our common grounds and move forward.

President Barack Obama asked the former presidents to head up the private relief efforts for the destitute country. Both presidents agreed. The move is similar to what Bush did when he asked his father, President George H.W. Bush, and Clinton to help out after the Asian tsunami in 2004. That partnership made both presidents look more human.

That could be the case this time around, too. The benefits of goodwill — on the part of leaders both nationally and locally — can have a ripple effect.

Clinton has visited Haiti numerous times because of redevelopment efforts he has spearheaded through his foundation and the Clinton Global Initiative.

In fact, he held a long-scheduled meeting at his Harlem offices on Thursday with dozens of people interested in long-term Haitian development, according to the Washington Post.

Clinton should be able to step in now with a good plan to rebuild Haiti.

That's good for Haiti. It is also good for Clinton. With the focus on his good works, no journalists are asking Clinton about a remark he hasn't denied in the newly released book, Game Change.

In an effort to secure the endorsement of the late Sen. Ted Kennedy for Hillary Clinton's bid for the presidency, Bill Clinton is quoted in the book as saying this about Obama: "A few years ago, this guy would have been getting us coffee."

Clinton has never publicly admitted saying that nor has he denied it. And now, with the focus on Haiti, he may never have to.

Haiti's troubles are also good for Bush. After a year of lying low, Bush will be thrust into public view. The disaster will give Bush the opportunity to soften criticism of his leadership abilities, of his knack for ignoring signs of a failing economy and for getting the country stuck in two wars.

It worked for President Jimmy Carter through his involvement with Habitat for Humanity and his international election monitoring.

With Bush's face attached to something altruistic and non-controversial, I can easily see his negative image receding.

Plus, Haiti's suffering will give Bush a chance to make up for the mismanagement of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Helping Haiti to arise from this mess like the mythical Phoenix arises from ashes would go a long way toward wiping the negative images of these two men from our minds.

According to a press release, Clinton and Bush will help raise money in the United States to supplement the $100 million in federal aid Obama announced and they plan to keep attention focused on Haiti's recovery for months and years to come.

"These people, they deserve their chance to build a modern life," Clinton said. "And I think they can do it."

Locally, perhaps when the mayoral election rolls around later this year the goodwill of Lexington Mayor Jim Newberry — hesitant though it was — in aiding Haiti will make him look better to some of us, too.

At first, the mayor rejected the FEMA request for Lexington firefighters to be first responders to the relief effort. The team received specialized training to search and rescue from a FEMA-sponsored program. The idea is FEMA trains them and then the city makes them available when disaster strikes.

But Newberry's reasoning for not sending the nine firefighters to Haiti is that the city would have to pay overtime and times are tough and we can't afford it. Then — with a little help and encouragement from the firefighters' union — the mayor learned FEMA will reimburse the city for the overtime and he agreed to place the team on standby.

By election time his change of heart may help us forget those missteps with the CentrePointe development and the airport investigation.

There's enough redemption in this to go around. And, if all this happens, then the biggest winners of all will be the Haitian people, who deserve to return better than before.

In a speech he gave in 1959, John F. Kennedy said, "When written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters: one represents danger and the other represents opportunity."

Some linguists say that translation is a misinterpretation, but in this case, let's hope Kennedy was right for all concerned.