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But on Thursday, Mr. Obama skipped the praise he had laid on W the night before. “Whatever our political differences, President Bush loves this country and loves its people and shares that same concern and was concerned about all people in America, not just those who voted Republican. I think that’s true about him, and I think that’s true about most of us.”

Except it’s not. Especially not this president. He has made his presidency about dividing America — along lines of class, sex, race, sexuality, you name it. Successful people are “the rich who need to pay their fair share.” Last week, he had a name for elected lawmakers who opposed his new gun laws — “liars.” And more than any president before him, he has set out to destroy the other party, casting Republicans as out of touch, archaic, maybe even racist.

Then, finally, W took the podium. Gone were the punched phrases, the comfortable pauses, the perfect elocution of Barack and Bill. Back was the Texas drawl, the too-fast delivery — nerves? No, just impatience — that the wine-sipping media so deplored.

He got right to the point: “For eight years, you gave me the honor of serving as your president. Today I’m proud to dedicate this center to the American people.”

He gave a profound lesson to his successor and his predecessor: “In democracy, the purpose of public office is not to fulfill personal ambition. Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right, polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold.

“As president, I tried to act on these principles every day. It wasn’t always easy and it certainly wasn’t always popular … And when our freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe,” he said to loud applause.

But it was the end that gave us the truest glimpse of the man. Like so many other times, the power of America got to him. With tears in his eyes, his voice breaking, he said: “It’s the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States. Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best day lie ahead.” By the end he was in tears, barely able to creak out: “God bless.”

Then with a wink and a wave, he turned and went back to his chair. Leaning in to Laura, he said with a shrug, “Sorry.” Then he sat down, looking shell shocked. The 10,000-plus crowd was on its feet, cheering. That made him even more sheepish. He pawed at an escaping tear. Then he noticed the other presidents on their feet. So he stood back up, and held up three fingers — W.

But there was one last classy move not many saw. The program nearly over, Sgt. 1st Class Alvy R. Powell Jr. came to the side of the stage to perform the “Star Spangled Banner.” A big, powerful black man, Mr. Powell belted out the anthem. With the crowd applauding, the sergeant moved along the line of people, shaking hands with all. After greeting W, he turned to go. But the 43rd president put his hand on the sergeant’s arm and said, “Stay,” just as a chaplain stepped forward to give a benediction.

So the final tableau of the day: Five presidents, five first ladies, heads bowed in prayer. And Sgt. 1st Class Alvy R. Powell Jr. No one, really, just the man a president asked to “stay.”

Joseph Curl covered the White House and politics for a decade for The Washington Times and is now editor of the Drudge Report. He can be reached at josephcurl@gmail.com and @josephcurl.