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Friendship across the great partisan divide

I WAS pleased to learn that the 41st and 42d presidents of the United States have been playing golf together on the fog-covered links of Kennebunkport, Maine. Bill Clinton is known to take a few too many mulligans, but I am sure George H.W. Bush was much too polite to have mentioned it.

In a way the two men couldn't be more different: one reticent, a bit awkward in public, exuding New England virtues despite his Texas years, who hated presidential debates almost as much as broccoli. The other a world-class schmoozer who loves the business of politics and ran a presidency as undisciplined as Bush's was disciplined.

George H.W. Bush is a member of Tom Brokaw's ''greatest generation" that includes the dwindling band of World War II veterans who are now dying off at a rate of about 1,000 a day. Bush experienced combat firsthand and was saved only after a submarine plucked him out of the Pacific after his plane crashed during a desperate mission.

Clinton belongs to that part of the baby booming generation that too often avoided the fighting edge of war, and in that respect is more in the company of the present president, seeking the relative safety of the National Guard, or Vice President Dick Cheney, who had ''other priorities" than serving his country in a time of war.

I expect that Bush senior was pleased that Clinton never trashed Bush the younger during the latest, bitterest, and most polarizing of presidential campaigns. The two former presidents got to know each other during their tsunami relief days, and from all reports, got along well. Clinton said he was probably the only man in American who liked both George W. Bush and John Kerry.

Seeing a photograph of the two former rivals for the presidency together in a golf cart was a reminder of a kinder, gentler era when politicians could form friendships across the great partisan divide in this now over-polarized nation. I am sure there are people from ''the base," both left and right, who deplore such companionability. The religious right would pull Clinton out of the cart to save the president's father from contamination, and there are lefties who see no daylight in the Bush legacy.

Today we have men like Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, coming to New York to make politics out of 9/11 and accuse the Democrats of molly-coddling terrorists.

Today we have the head of the Democratic National Committee, Howard Dean, the John Bolton of the Democratic Party, saying he hates Republicans and everything they stand for.

Old Washington hands tell me they have never seen the capital so divided. My guess is that Senate majority leader Bill Frist and his Democratic counterpart, Harry Reid, are more belligerent than their constituencies. As the poet William Yeats said, ''the center will not hold," and Congress splits more and more either to the left or the right.

Some say that redistricting has meant that incumbents win reelection now 95 percent of the time so there is no need to reach out to the center any more. Energizing the base is enough.

I am also told that congressmen and women now too often spend a Tuesday through Thursday week in Washington and then go home for long weekends. It's great to keep in touch with your district, but gone are the Washington friendships, many of them made across party lines, in which car pools were shared and ideological differences could take a back seat.

Whatever the reasons, Americans live in two nations now, bitterly split along ideological lines in which cultural and reproductive issues are so hotly contested that friendship falls by the wayside.

The nation is gearing up for the bitterest fight yet to choose a new Supreme Court justice, and ''the hysteria and the foaming at the mouth," as Frist's chief of staff, Eric Ueland, termed it, have already begun even before the president has had a chance to name a candidate.

So if the old hero of Kennebunkport in his family summer retreat can have a round of golf with his brash but engaging successor from a different generation, a different political party, and a different life -- perhaps to swap stories from their days at the pinnacle of power -- let's wish them well.

H.D.S. Greenway's column appears regularly in the Globe.

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