President Obama will preside over the unveiling of the official portraits of President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush in a White House celebration.
President Obama has made him a foil for more than three years, blamed for the economic “mess” he inherited and wars gone astray. But it will be smiles and handshakes Thursday when Obama welcomes former President George W. Bush to the White House.
Obama will preside over the unveiling of the official portraits of Bush and former first lady Laura Bush, a celebration that will set aside political differences, at least for the day, in one of the enduring traditions of presidential camaraderie.
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The visit comes after years of Obama criticisms of the Bush record and policies and as the president has amped up his campaign-trail criticism of Republican challenger Mitt Romney, in part by portraying the former Massachusetts governor as an unwelcome return to the Bush years.
Still, observers and administration officials said Wednesday that they expected presidential protocol to carry the event, which first lady Michelle Obama, former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush also will attend.
“Not at all,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Wednesday. “I know the president looks forward to it.”
Carney acknowledged there are “differences there without question between his approach and the approach and the policies of his predecessor.” But the personal bond between presidents can overcome even sharp political disagreements.
“There is a community here with very few members that transcends political and policy differences,” Carney said. “There is so much shared experience. … There’s not a lot of need to talk about where they differ.”
At least not face to face. Obama last week accused Romney of “peddling the same bad ideas that brought our economy to the brink of collapse.”
“That was tried, remember?” the president asked a crowd in Redwood City, Calif. “The last guy did all this.”
But that “last guy” won’t find Thursday’s ceremony unsettling, said Tony Fratto, a former Bush spokesman.
“This is not his first time at the rodeo,” Fratto said. “I think he has a pretty mature view of politics and the people in the office and the ability to distinguish between the two.”
More than any president in recent memory, Bush not only has faded from the public spotlight but has all but disappeared from it. He has refused to engage in this year’s bare-knuckled presidential race, offering only a low-key endorsement of fellow Republican Mitt Romney.
“George W. Bush has been remarkably, and even strangely silent, even once you respect his sentiment that he did not want to get in Barack Obama’s way,” said Cal Jillson, a Southern Methodist University political-science professor who has long followed Bush’s career. “I think part of that is just giving himself time to recover from what had to be an astoundingly difficult close to his presidency.”
The politically impassioned issues of 2008 have faded. The Iraq war has ended. The financial sector has stabilized after a devastating crash. The nation still feels the cost of the enormous recession, but that is Obama’s problem now.
Bush may even joke about his standing. At the unveiling of another painting, in the National Portrait Gallery in 2008, he jokingly said, “I suspected there would be a good-size crowd once the word got out about my hanging.”
History also has marked this moment often, with grudges put aside.
When President Clinton came back for his portrait unveiling, Bush lauded him for “the forward-looking spirit that Americans like in a president.” Never mind that Bush had run in 2000 to “restore honor and dignity” after Clinton’s sex scandal.
And when Clinton welcomed back Bush’s father, whom he had defeated in 1992, he said to the Bushes: “Welcome home. We’re glad to have you here.”
After Obama’s historic victory in 2008, the younger Bush also welcomed him to the White House with grace and demanded a smooth transition.
On Obama’s first day in the Oval Office, he found a personal note from Bush, a private president-to-president tradition. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, Obama hosted Bush and Clinton in the Rose Garden, where Obama called them “gentlemen of extraordinary stature” for their commitment to the quake-ravaged country. The Obamas and the Bushes also joined in September to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“They’ve had the occasional dealing outside the glare of the political klieg lights, and they get along fine,” University of Texas presidential historian Bruce Buchanan said. “They both understand the business that they’re in and understand that it’s an election year.”
Although photographs now provide a running documentary of presidential life, William Seale, editor of White House History, a journal by the White House Historical Association, wrote that the tradition of oil portraits “lingers at the White House from another time, as does much from the past.”
The first presidential portrait hung at the White House was of George Washington. Congress paid $800 for the Gilbert Stuart painting.
The portraits have not been without controversy, though. Former President Nixon’s portrait once was consigned to storage, after Duke University Law School professors who had paid for the painting protested Nixon’s handling of Vietnam and Watergate.
Nixon, though, has been restored to the walls of the White House.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.