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.
"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).
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).
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 firstname.lastname@example.org and @josephcurl.