It may have been billed as a showdown between two former presidents, but if you were to judge Friday's much-hyped Bush-Clinton showdown by the spectacle that surrounded it, you'd be forgiven for thinking only one former leader was on the bill.
Hours before former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were scheduled to begin their "conversation" at downtown Toronto's Metro Convention Centre on Friday, dozens of protesters, cops and gawkers had gathered along Front Street to witness the historic meet-up. But the protesters, at least, had their sights on just one of the two men.
Resting against benches on the other side of the street from the convention centre were row upon row of placards decorated with pictures of Mr. Bush and the words "war crimes." Other protest signs carried the now-infamous picture of the hooded, electrode-laden Abu Ghraib prisoner in a crucifix pose. Members of the Toronto Coalition to Stop the War carried signs reading, "War criminals not welcome here." Another political group, Food Not Bombs, set up an impromptu buffet table on the street, featuring such delicious puns as "Condoleezza Rice" and "Chard (him with war crimes) stir-fry." Even local 1005 of the Steelworkers' Union got in on the act. Virtually every sign, cause and chant related to the 43rd, rather than 42nd president.
Several protesters sought to use the event as a way to press for the repatriation of Omar Khadr, a 22-year-old Canadian citizen who was captured in Afghanistan by U.S. troops at the age of 15 and is currently held in a Guantanamo Bay prison camp, facing murder charges.
"The idea is that both Omar Khadr and George Bush should face a Canadian courtroom," said David, a member of Food Not Bombs who refused to give his last name. "But they're welcoming Bush on the red carpet - the rule of law has been suspended today."
The confluence of weekend foot traffic, a bicycle race, an evening Blue Jays-Red Sox game at the adjacent Rogers Centre and beautiful weather made for a distinctly picnic-y vibe outside the Convention Centre. In the lead-up to 5 p.m. - the hour at which protests were expected to hit high gear - there were no visible confrontations between the dozen or so bicycle cops stationed at Front Street and the protesters.
In preparation for the event, Toronto police set up a block-long steel fence along the north side of Front Street, closing a lane of westbound traffic in the process. Vehicle flow was sluggish hours before the event even began, and anyone foolish enough to use the street during rush hour was likely in for a long wait.
But while the mood outside was bordering on festive, inside the Convention Centre was strictly business.
Amidst a smattering of terribly conspicuous, earpiece-wearing security staff, a lineup of about 50 audience members began forming more than three hours before the 3:30 p.m. event was scheduled to begin. The mean age seemed to hover around 45, in large part because a number of couples decided to bring their tween and teenaged children along.
Adherence to the "business casual" dress code prescribed on tickets varied from Armani suits to, in at least one instance, a glaringly loud American flag T-shirt.
For those who have never been to the Toronto Metro Convention Centre, it is a massive, multilevel, multi-building facility, often hosting three or four major conferences simultaneously. A quick look at the day's bulletin board showed that the presidents would be competing for attention with the 2009 Environmental Health and Safety Expo, and that the Bush-Clinton talk would inevitably overlap with a safety professional exam prep workshop.
As prospective audience members lined up, one of the organizers' staff paced up and down the line asking, "Is there anyone in line with Emerald tickets?" Event organizers have refused to tell reporters what the Emerald ticket - believed to be the most exclusive and expensive - entails. However a staff member was overheard in the convention centre saying the ticket includes a photo-op with the Presidents.
For those not fortunate enough to secure photographic evidence of their brush with power - security staff spent much of their time reminding audience members about the ban on photography - the historic nature of the gathering alone made it worth witnessing.
"I was looking forward to the points of contention between [Presidents Bush and Clinton]" said James Bateman, who nonetheless admitted that he's been led to believe the Presidents will likely not argue.
"I'm going in without expectations. The fact that their going on stage together means they must have some kind of dialogue."
Asked what drew him to the event, another audience member, Anatoliy Melnichuk, replied, "What can you say, it's two ex-presidents."