Former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura returned to the White House today for the unveiling of their portraits. The former President’s parents – themselves a former President and a former First Lady – were also in attendance. They received the longest ovation of the day.
President and Ms. Obama both spoke. Peter Wehner, who was present as a former member of the Bush staff, got it exactly right when he said, “the president was congenial, while Mrs. Obama was warm and charitable.”
It would have been nice if Obama too had been charitable. However, he did manage to exceed the low level of class and graciousness he has exhibited towards his predecessor in the past.
On an occasion like this, Obama had to find something nice to say about Bush. Predictably, most of what he found was self-referential and/or self-serving. He thanked Bush for helping him during the transition. And, claiming that the country, in essence, was on the verge of economic collapse at the end of the Bush presidency, Obama thanked Bush for recognizing that economic collapse is a bad thing whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat, and therefore for cooperating.
But then Obama managed to praise Bush for something that had nothing to do with Obama, i.e., for speaking forcefully and reassuringly in the days after 9/11. There wasn’t much warmth or charity in it – it fell well short of what Bush was able to say in praise of Bill Clinton under similar circumstances. But it was enough to salvage his presentation, in my view.
Obama also thanked Bush for leaving him a “great [television] sports package” that, Obama quickly pointed out, he makes good use of. Nice line.
Bush’s remarks were humorous, but also moving and gracious. Laura Bush was, well, Laura Bush – I’ve never seen her put a wrong foot forward.
Finally, Michelle Obama was, as Pete Wehner said, warm and charitable. She even played the straight woman for Bush’s light-hearted gag. The former President noted that, when the White House was under attack during the War of 1812, Dolley Madison made sure to evacuate Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of “the first president George W.” Bush told Ms. Obama that, if there’s trouble, he hopes she will do the same for the latest George W. portrait. The First Lady assured Bush that she would be all over it. She also warmly praised the Bushes for their parenting and thanked the Bush daughters, who were in attendance, for the good advice they gave the Obama girls.
In sum, it was quite a nice event. The Bush’s and the current First Lady were spot-on and President Obama did as well as can be expected.