Monday, February 22, 2010

Bush and Clinton are Brothers - Who Knew?

Along with two of my partners, Rhett Giddings and Cooper Flack, I spent a few days earlier this month at the TD Ameritrade National Conference in Orlando, Florida. While Cooper and I have each attended the last nine annual events, this was Rhett’s first time accompanying us.

In addition to the obvious educational value of the conference, there are always other, sometimes unexpected, benefits. One such benefit is, shall we say, the male bonding that takes place when three business partners all share one hotel room. It affords the opportunity to witness one another in a non-office environment—somewhat akin to that of older, more set-in-their-ways college roommates. And it’s usually a lot of fun.

By far the most enlightening revelation had nothing to do with economics, investing, or networking. It came on the second morning, when the general session featured former presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush onstage at the same time. They sat in matching leather chairs as they fielded a variety of questions that had been submitted by advisor attendees.

The answers were of course enlightening in themselves, but what really struck everyone present was the demeanor of the two men. Through their work on Haiti relief, they have become fast friends. Not pretend friends—real buddies. This fact was not only clear from the kind words each spoke on the other’s behalf, but it was obvious from the easy interaction between the two men.

They joked and teased each other. They laughed together. They called each other “George” and “Bill.” They punched each other good-naturedly. Each generously gave his counterpart credit and praise for specific accomplishments. In one remarkable exchange, President Bush described the man sitting next to him as almost like a brother. President Clinton, smiling impishly, turned to the audience and said, “I think his family must have decided they needed a black sheep.” Everyone in the room roared with laughter.

The topics ranged far and wide, and the audience was spellbound throughout. Near the end, interviewer Tom Bradley (president of TD Ameritrade Institutional) said there was time for one more question. Conceding that he had not gotten around to asking them about the current health care debate, he asked the two men’s opinions of the future of financial services regulation as it applied to registered investment advisor fiduciaries versus non-fiduciary brokers. Tom added that they should feel free to throw in a comment about health care if they wished.

President Bush, obviously far outside his comfort zone, replied, “Well, I think you’d better ask somebody who knows what the hell they’re talking about.” After the laughter died down, he said, grasping at straws for a useful answer, “I don’t know much about it but I will tell you this…. I think..…it’s……well……...” And then, his eyes brightening slightly, he added, “Health care.” As the room erupted once again, President Clinton reached over and grasped his shoulder sympathetically. Bush said, “Hey, I’m tryin’ to buy you a little time over here, buddy!”

The lesson of this singular event was not lost the advisors in attendance. As two of only 43 men ever to serve in what is universally acknowledged to be the toughest job in the world, these two gentlemen share a unique perspective. They understand that things are never as simple as they seem to observers. They know firsthand the pressures of the position. And as retirees from the presidency, they no longer have any need for pretense. I think it’s safe to say that everyone present liked both of these guys and came away with a renewed appreciation for the job of President of the United States.

It also turned out that one or both of the former presidents were staying on the same floor as my roomies and me. The Presidential and Executive Suites were on that floor, and for the remainder of the day and throughout the night, there were Secret Service agents all over the place, discreetly posted at strategic points in the hallway. They watched us with suspicion every time we passed. It was just another reminder of the unique lives these men lead.

And by the way, the chairs they had used for the interview were auctioned off for $15,000 on the final day of the conference. TD Ameritrade matched it with $15,000 of its own, and the entire $30,000 is being donated to the Clinton-Bush Haiti relief fund.

So yeah, I’d say it was a worthwhile trip.