- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 8, 2009

POLITICAL THEATER:

Editor’s note: Today’s Washington Times features the first installment of “Political Theater,” a column in which political reporter and longtime White House correspondent Joe Curl will give readers a front-row seat to Washington’s power players and their performances.

It may be the people’s house, but for 13 more days, it’s his house, and hisOval Office, even if three former presidents — one of them his dad — happen to drop by for lunch.

Unless, that is, the new tenant who has been measuring the drapes for months joins the foursome and, despite his repeated insistence that “there’s only one president at a time,” decides he’d like to make a little speech, too.

Gathering all the living presidents at the White House for the first time in 27 years, President Bush on Wednesday stood in the center of the quintet, gathered for the quintessential power lunch, and hurried a throng of reporters and cameramen into place so he could make a brief, magnanimous statement.

“I want to thank the president-elect for joining the ex-presidents for lunch,” he said, nodding toward Barack Obama, who smiled and nodded and smiled again.

“And one message that I have and I think we all share is that we want you to succeed. Whether we’re Democrat or Republican, we care deeply about this country. And to the extent we can, we look forward to sharing our experiences with you. All of us who have served in this office understand that the office itself transcends the individual. And we wish you all the very best. And so does the country.

“Thank you all.” Done, finished, over and out.

Junior White House staffers immediately bellowed “Thank you! Thanks, guys!” in an aggressive call for the press to vamoose. The giant “scoop” television lights that illuminated the members of the world’s most exclusive club were quickly shut off as reporters and photographers began heading for the door.

But just then, the man who takes over the house on Jan. 20 on a long-term lease — four years, with an option to renew for four more — decided that the show wasn’t quite over.

With a wave of his right hand, he froze the press corps in place. Still in the dark, and with Mr. Bush fidgeting next to him, Mr. Obama stammered at first, taking the floor in a room that, for eight years, has fallen silent after the president has spoken and his staffers have called out, “Thank you!”

“The, uh, uh, I, I, I, I, uh, I just want to thank the president for, uh — I just want to thank the president for hosting us,” he said, gesturing to Mr. Bush, whose fixed-on smile looked a bit like a grimace as the lights were turned back on. “This is an extraordinary gathering. All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office. And for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary. And I’m very grateful to all of them. But again thank you, Mr. President, for hosting us.”

(For the record, the official White House Web site cuts the video off after the president’s comments, just as Mr. Bush is shaking hands with Mr. Obama.)

The whole show was over in two minutes, but the logistics of pulling off what was little more than a photo-op were extraordinary. First, the White House gathered the three former presidents from across the country (although Papa Bush stayed in the White House overnight on Tuesday). The others arrived by motorcade, sloshing through the soaked streets on a frigid day. Even the president-elect, who is staying just across the street from the White House at the Hay-Adams Hotel, came by car.

His arrival was an omen of things to come for a hungry press corps, which packed the small briefing room off the West Wing to await the rare gathering. Mr. Obama’s own press pool — just a dozen or so reporters — was, for some reason, piled into a massive, full-sized coach bus, which couldn’t make it easily through the south gates of the White House. By the time the beast wriggled through, the president-elect had already dashed through the rain into his soon-to-be home.

Inside, the White House press pool had grown to a sea more than an hour before the call to the Oval Office. More than 30 photographers clogged the entrance to the lower press office, jockeying to be among the first in. The White House had planned for the quintet to stroll down the colonnade — where presidents are often photographed with world leaders — and stop by a press corps packed into the Rose Garden to make a few comments. But the relentless downpour forced the event indoors, and rather than parade the principals into the roomy East Room, the Oval Office was chosen.

In a rare move, the White House trotted the press into the office in three waves, two batches of photographers and one gaggle of writers and a TV crew. More glitches. When the first pack of shutterbugs raced in, the big “scoop” lights were off. Photographers scrambled to reset their cameras, but just as they had, the lights went on.

“I’m trying to salvage something, but c’mon, you’d think these guys would have their act together after eight years,” one frustrated photographer said.

The second batch went in for exactly eight seconds, according to The Washington Times’ photographer, who was the second or third shooter through the door.

Throughout the photo sessions, the four presidents and the president-elect made small talk. Standing in front of the Resolute desk, which was used by all the presidents present, including President Clinton (who came up with some new uses for the desk made from timbers of the HMS Resolute), the POTUSes paired off — George H.W. Bush chatted with Mr. Obama, the current president with his predecessor.

Alone on the edge was Jimmy Carter, who in some pictures was seen looking off to a wall as his colleagues talked. (The White House later said the five “had a wide-ranging discussion on many different issues facing the United States” during their lunch, but one media wag joked that Mr. Carter had come to deliver a message from Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group the 39th president met with last year.)

Before being rushed out after the pool spray, CBS News reporter Bill Plante yelled a question to Mr. Obama: “What can you learn from their mistakes?” With a broad smile, the president-elect said: “From their successes!”

But as always, the president impeached after his sexual dalliance with an intern half his age had the best line of the day.

When most of the cameras had been turned off, Mr. Clinton was caught looking at Mr. Bush, then the floor, then Mr. Bush again. Very somberly, in his broken way, he said: “I … love … this … rug.”

• Joe Curl can be contacted at jcurl@washington times.com

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