August 17, 2006—Summer romance blooms in the oddest places. At the International AIDS Conference in Toronto this week, former President Bill Clinton was caught defending George Bush. They were not previously known to share much fondness but, in the Reuters version at least, Clinton “leaped to the defense” of Bush and his efforts to fight AIDS.

Was Clinton going soft on the Bush administration’s abstinence-only prevention policies? Would the sweet-talk last? Let’s go to the videotape.  

Clinton did say of Bush’s $15 billion President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, “On balance, this program has done way more good than harm, and I am personally very grateful for it.” Under Bush, he noted, the United States spends more money on AIDS than any other country. He lauded Dubya for setting up a process at the FDA to get brand-name drugs approved for use in the U.S. plan (although he could just as easily have slapped Bush for requiring that these overseas “emergency” meds require approval in the first place).

And he said don’t believe the hype about the evils of the plan: “Our experience working with [it] is that actually it operates differently in different countries, maybe depending on who is running it, maybe depending on what the country itself wishes to do.”

Of course, every romance has its foibles, and this one is no exception: Bush leaves the toilet seat up, fails to give enough to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and ought to overturn the policy forbidding U.S. money to go toward prevention programs that could be seen as advocating prostitution. "I wish they would just amend the law and say we disapprove of prostitution but here is the money, go save lives,” Clinton said in Toronto.

He was also upfront about the trouble he has with one of the Bush administration’s most central AIDS platforms. “I think the evidence is that abstinence-only programs are ultimately unsuccessful,” he said, arguing that they leave people less prepared for safe sex later in life.

"I think the more likely thing to happen is that the administration might be persuaded to interpret the guidelines in a way that promotes abstinence in the context of more comprehensive prevention policies,” he suggested.

As summer winds down, it’s not apparent whether this starry-eyed new flirtation will endure. For one thing, the courting appears quite formal: In all his public comments, the silver-haired Democrat, to whom thousands of people sang “Happy Birthday” in Toronto on Tuesday afternoon, never used the other guy’s first name. In fact, he only referred to him once, as “President Bush.”

Whatever his feelings about George, Bill made clear this week in Toronto that he wouldn’t stand for criticism of his own accomplishments. “That ain’t so” was his response to complaints that he did too little to fight AIDS during his presidency. He gave himself credit for laying Global Fund groundwork, creating a vaccine initiative and tripling overseas investment.

He did admit to regrets opposing needle exchange programs. But he shared the blame on U.S. spendthriftiness overseas with former Senator Jesse Helms. And then Clinton looked to the bright side. “We turned it around, spent a massive amount of money,” he said. “I think I did do a good job.… I did make a lot of mistakes when I was president, but that wasn’t one of them.”

That line got a laugh as the audience recalled the former president’s long stretch of inappropriate liaisons, and one in particular. We can only hope the Bush affair comes out better.