How to praise your predecessor with class

I wrote here about President Obama’s remarks during the ceremony in which portraits of George W. and Laura Bush were unveiled at the White House. Unfortunately, Obama found it difficult to offer any praise of Bush that did not refer, usually self-servingly, to himself. And, I wrote, to the very limited extent that Obama managed to offer such praise, “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.”

At Ricochet, former Bush speechwriter Bill McGurn has performed the service of holding Obama’s remarks about Bush next to Bush’s remarks about Clinton (which McGurn did not write). The contrast is even more striking than I had supposed.

Here is what Obama said about his immediate predecessor:

The months before I took the oath of office were a chaotic time. We knew our economy was in trouble, our fellow Americans were in pain, but we wouldn’t know until later just how breathtaking the financial crisis had been. And still, over those two and a half months — in the midst of that crisis — President Bush, his Cabinet, his staff, many of you who are here today, went out of your ways — George, you went out of your way — to make sure that the transition to a new administration was as seamless as possible.

President Bush understood that rescuing our economy was not just a Democratic or a Republican issue; it was a American priority. I’ll always be grateful for that.

The same is true for our national security. None of us will ever forget where we were on that terrible September day when our country was attacked. All of us will always remember the image of President Bush standing on that pile of rubble, bullhorn in hand, conveying extraordinary strength and resolve to the American people but also representing the strength and resolve of the American people.

And last year, when we delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, I made it clear that our success was due to many people in many organizations working together over many years — across two administrations. That’s why my first call once American forces were safely out of harm’s way was to President Bush. Because protecting our country is neither the work of one person, nor the task of one period of time, it’s an ongoing obligation that we all share.

Finally, on a personal note, Michelle and I are grateful to the entire Bush family for their guidance and their example during our own transition.

In five paragraphs, Bush serves as a prop for Obama in four. And in the first paragraph, Obama says, in effect, that Bush left the country in terrible shape.

Now let’s look at what Bush said about Clinton:

As a candidate for any office, whether it be the state attorney general or the President, Bill Clinton showed incredible energy and great personal appeal. As chief executive, he showed a deep and far-ranging knowledge of public policy, a great compassion for people in need, and the forward-looking spirit the Americans like in a President. Bill Clinton could always see a better day ahead — and Americans knew he was working hard to bring that day closer.

Over eight years, it was clear that Bill Clinton loved the job of the presidency. He filled this house with energy and joy. He’s a man of enthusiasm and warmth, who could make a compelling case and effectively advance the causes that drew him to public service.

People saw those gifts very early in Bill Clinton. He is remembered in Hope, Arkansas, and other places along the way, as an eager, good-hearted boy who seemed destined for big things. I was particularly struck by the story of a nun at St. John’s School in Hot Springs who decided that Billy Clinton should get a C in deportment. That was a rare grade for the future Rhodes Scholar and President. So Bill’s mother gave the nun a call to see what was wrong. The sister replied, “Oh, nothing much. But let me tell you, this boy knows the answer to every question and he just leaps to his feet before anyone else can.” She went on, you know, “I know he’ll not tolerate this C, but it’ll be good for him. And I promise you, if he wants to be, he will be President someday.”

People in Bill Clinton’s life have always expected him to succeed — and, more than that, they wanted him to succeed. And meeting those expectations took more than charm and intellect — it took hard work and drive and determination and optimism. And after all, you’ve got to be optimistic to give six months of your life running the McGovern campaign in Texas.

He won his first statewide office at age 30, sworn in as governor at 32. He was a five-time governor of Arkansas, the first man from that state to become the President. He’s also the first man in his party since Franklin Roosevelt to win a second term in the White House. And I could tell you more of the story, but it’s coming out in fine bookstores all over America.

At every stage in the extraordinary rise of Bill Clinton, from the little ranch house on Scully Street to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, he and Roger had a wonderful, loving mother. And I am certain that Virginia Kelley would be filled with incredible pride this morning.

Never once does Bush crash this party; there’s nary a self-reference. Moreover, Bush’s praise for Clinton is full of warmth. And, though Bush doesn’t praise any of Clinton’s specific policies, he emphasizes that, as a general matter, Clinton worked diligently to bring about a better day for America.

Obama’s biggest asset these days is that people like him as a person. Even I did, at first. But Obama isn’t really very likeable, and as his exposure increases in the context of a difficult campaign, I believe that his personal popularity will decline.

Photo courtesy spirit of america / Shutterstock.com

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