President-elect George W. Bush yesterday spent two hours with the president he will soon succeed, then met for 15 minutes with his defeated rival, Vice President Al Gore.
The day of conciliatory photo-ops a show of unity following five weeks of partisan rancor capped Mr. Bush’s whirlwind three-day trip to Washington.
Meeting with President Clinton two years to the day since he was impeached by the House, the candidate who campaigned on a promise to “restore honor and dignity” to the White House struck a deferential pose.
“I’m here to listen,” said the Texas governor. “It’s such a huge honor to come as the president-elect. I don’t think I’ll really, fully realize the impact until I swear in.”
During the Oval Office meeting, the president-elect sat erect in a wing-backed chair, his hands clasped in his lap. Afterward, Mr. Bush thanked the president for his hospitality, shook hands with Mr. Clinton and called it “a high-energy moment.”
Mr. Clinton was all smiles, but turned didactic after Mr. Bush deflected a reporter’s question about whether he will inherit a recession.
“Well, a recession is two quarters in a row of negative growth,” Mr. Clinton told reporters. “I don’t think we’re going to have that.”
Mr. Clinton’s frank private conversation with Mr. Bush dealt almost entirely with foreign policy, with neither broaching White House scandals.
The meeting “was very much focused on policy and not on the past,” White House spokesman Jake Siewert said.
Mr. Gore returned from a vacation in the Virgin Islands to greet Mr. Bush yesterday afternoon at the vice president’s official residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory.
Mr. Gore shook hands with Mr. Bush as a light snow fell, then patted him on the back and led him inside for the brief session.
“We’re going to have a private discussion,” Mr. Gore told reporters.
Inside the residence, Mr. Bush and Mr. Gore sat in armchairs before a fire and had a cordial conversation about healing the discord caused by the 36 days of legal wrangling following the Nov. 7 election, Gore spokesman Jim Kennedy said.
“The vice president was very gracious and they both talked about working together to heal the nation,” Bush spokesman Gordon Johndroe added.
Mr. Bush’s trip to the White House was a symbolic tableau, meant to convey continuity amid the change of power.
Eight years ago, it was Mr. Bush’s father who greeted Mr. Clinton for a private talk about foreign policy.
Mr. Clinton met Mr. Bush’s motorcade in the driveway at the South Portico at 11:23 a.m. Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush walked side by side past the Rose Garden and along the colonnade to the Oval Office.
The nation’s 42nd and 43rd presidents first talked in the Oval Office, then adjourned to the family dining room in the upstairs residence, where they lunched on curried squash soup, filet mignon, Greek salad and an upside-down apple dessert with maple ice cream.
In the Oval Office, Mr. Clinton, his right leg swung over his left knee, dismissed worries about a possible recession and briefly expounded on the economy.
“We couldn’t keep up 5 percent growth a year, you know, forever,” Mr. Clinton told reporters.
“I think 49 of the 50 blue-chip forecasters think that growth will be 2.5 percent next year, and that’ll keep unemployment low,” said Mr. Clinton.
“But I think there will be things to be managed. He’ll have economic challenges, and you ought to give him a chance to meet them, not try to figure it all out in advance.”
In private, said Mr. Siewert, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Bush likely talked about the Middle East, North Korea and the Balkans, among other international hot spots.
Mr. Clinton told reporters he has not yet decided whether to visit North Korea before he leaves office. Mr. Siewert said Mr. Clinton will make that decision, but he conferred with Mr. Bush on the topic.
The day’s cordial visits masked months of harsh rhetoric.
Last summer, Mr. Clinton mocked Mr. Bush during the Republican National Convention, prompting an angry retort by the GOP’s candidate.
Mr. Clinton said at a Democratic fund-raiser in Massachusetts that Mr. Bush’s campaign boiled down to a simple message: “How bad can I be? I’ve been governor of Texas. My daddy was president. I own a baseball team. They like me down there.”
Mr. Bush responded by telling reporters that Mr. Clinton was “so desperate to have his legacy intact by getting Al Gore elected, he’ll say anything, just like Al Gore will.”
Mr. Gore had not met with Mr. Bush since their third and final debate, Oct. 17 in St. Louis.
Mr. Gore called Mr. Bush to concede last Wednesday. That was their first conversation since early morning Nov. 8, when Mr. Gore retracted his initial concession and told the Texas governor not to get “snippy.”
As Mr. Bush met with Mr. Clinton, workers in hard hats continued to work in front of the White House, erecting reviewing stands along Pennsylvania Avenue for Mr. Bush’s inaugural parade.
An anti-Bush protester outside the White House refused to forget the monthlong saga of chads and dimples.
He wore a Bush mask and held a sign that said: “Hail to the Thief.”