- - Thursday, April 25, 2013


DALLAS — Shortly after Barack Obama was elected in 2008, a fellow reporter who’d covered President George W. Bush all eight years told me she’d had enough of the travel and stress and strain of the White House beat, that she was moving on.

We reminisced about all the places we’d been, all the crazy days and wild nights, all the history we’d seen — first hand. Just before we said our goodbyes, I asked her if she’d miss covering President Obama.

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“Not at all. He’s an inch deep. Bush is a bottomless chasm, a deep, mysterious, emotional, profound man. Obama is all surface — shallow, obvious, robotic, and, frankly, not nearly as smart as he thinks. Bush was the one.”

Her words, so succinct, have stuck with me ever since. By the way, she’s a hardcore Democrat.

But she was right. And that contrast was apparent to all who watched Thursday’s ceremonial event to open W’s new presidential library in Dallas. The class and grace and depth of America’s last president completely outshined that of his successor (who, coincidentally, or perhaps not, was the only one seated in the shade on a sunny Texas day).

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In fact, the day gave America a chance to measure the men who have served it as commander-in-chief for 28 of the last 36 years. Five of the last six presidents were on stage, the first time the quintet has appeared together in public. And what a study in character it was.

Jimmy Carter, the Man From Malaise who was thrown out of office after just one abysmal term (remember double-digit inflation, 9 percent unemployment, gas shortages and low economic growth?) was first to speak. But he was, as always, befuddled. After Laura Bush finished her welcome to the crowd, there was a pause as the Army Chorus prepared to perform “America the Beautiful.” In those few moments, Mr. Carter, the only president wearing sunglasses, rose and moved toward the podium. W waved him back down, but Jimmy apparently thought he waving him over. After a short whispering session, the peanut farmer went back to his seat (and W made a funny face to the crowd that said “Adoy!”)

When Jimmy did speak, he opened with, “In 2000, as some of you may remember, there was a disputed election for several weeks.” Nice way to start. He then took credit for giving W the idea to intercede in Sudan, and went on to praise W’s great successes — in Africa. He never mentioned 9-11 and the war on terror, or the commander in chief’s leadership during America’s most trying hour. Which is why his comments lasted just 3¼ minutes.

Bill Clinton followed. He, of course, spoke twice as long, filling his speech with jokes and faux humility. He was his usual affable self — smooth, confident, taking just the right pauses to punch passages, set up jokes (all of which wife Hillary guffawed at).

But the lip bites, the craggy-finger point, the cocked-head squint all looked like “Saturday Night Live” caricatures — mainly because they once were. Mr. Clinton, for all his prodigious gifts, will always be the class clown, the one no one takes too seriously. And with good reason: He did, after all, not “not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky” in the Oval Office. And W — who vowed “to return dignity to the office of the presidency” — was America’s answer to his tomfoolery. It was, America said, time for a grown up.

George H.W. Bush, turning 90 in June, was a welcome respite. Somewhat frail now, he spoke only briefly from his wheelchair, but garnered two standing ovations — and the biggest laugh of the day from his oldest son. After his remarks, just 24 seconds, he shook his boy’s hand and said, deadpan, “Too long?”

President Obama took the podium next. Every bit as cunning as Slick Willy, his speech too was filled with fake self-effacing insights, including one on “the world’s most exclusive club,” which he said “is more like a support group.” Another laugher from the man with no humility was when he said “being president, above all, is a humbling job.”

Then, on a day that was intended to be without politics, he hawked his push for amnesty, imploring “some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today, that we bring it home — for our families, and our economy, and our security, and for this incredible country that we love.”

In fact, Mr. Obama made the whole trip about politics. He did a Democratic fundraiser the night before the library opening, and planned a pro-abortion speech at a Planned Parenthood event the same night (which his handlers finally realized was over the top and rescheduled).

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