COLLEGE STATION, Texas | A day after telling supporters in San Francisco that he was cleaning up a mess left for him by former President George W. Bush, President Obama came to his predecessor’s adopted home state Friday to honor his father, former President George H.W. Bush, for his public service.
Mr. Obama arrived deep in enemy political territory to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Mr. Bush’s inaugural address and call to action that led to the creation of the Points of Light Institute, the nation’s largest volunteer-management and civic organization.
The president lauded the 41st commander-in-chief, who is now 85 years old, for being a leader “who promoted the ethic of service long before it was fashionable,” and for choosing a life of service over “a life of comfort and privilege.”
And Mr. Obama urged the young people in the crowd of more than 2,000 inside Texas A&M’s Rudder Auditorium to press forward in serving others even if it does not seem to make a difference. The president, who was born more than a decade after Mr. Bush fought as a Navy pilot in World War II, cited Mr. Bush’s wartime sacrifices to hammer home the point.
“If President Bush could fly 58 combat missions when he was younger than many of you here today, and keep on fighting even after he was shot down and nearly captured by the enemy, then surely you can keep going when your service project gets a little tough,” Mr. Obama said at the campus that’s home to Mr. Bush’s presidential library.
Mr. Obama said his own work in promoting volunteerism was building on the efforts of the first President Bush, as well as former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
That was his only remark about the second President Bush, who Mr. Obama used as a punching bag in his run for the White House. One day earlier, Mr. Obama slammed the second Bush administration in New Orleans for its response to Hurricane Katrina and then flew to San Francisco for a fundraiser, where he said part of the reason his first year in office has been so challenging is that he is “cleaning up somebody else’s mess.”
The remark did not go unnoticed by members of the former Bush administration, who have watched Mr. Obama routinely blame the ongoing economic crisis and other problems on the man he followed into the White House. Some of them have spoken out publicly, though Mr. Bush and his father have remained silent.
“It’s his standard line, so I guess nothing surprises me sometimes,” said Dana Perino, who served as press secretary for the Bush White House from 2007 through the end of his term.
But the 41st president is notoriously protective of his son’s legacy and has often bristled in the past at harsh criticisms.
In an interview with CBS Radio prior to the event, Mr. Bush said that during his son’s time in office critics “just hammered him mercilessly and I think obscenely a lot of the time.”
He singled out MSNBC personalities Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow for their criticism of the second President Bush, calling them “sick puppies.”
“The way they treat my son and anyone who’s opposed to their point of view is just horrible,” the elder Bush said.
But he also said that the intense political sniping has “moved to a new president” with attacks that “sometimes cross the lines of civility.”
“People ought to be civil,” he said. “I worry about yelling at people and this yelling mentality that seems to accompany presidents.”
During his appearance with Mr. Obama, the senior Mr. Bush had nothing but positive words for Mr. Obama, though his introductory remarks prior to Mr. Obama’s 20-minute speech were brief.
“I salute the president for his leadership on this issue,” said Mr. Bush.
The first President Bush recalled that when he first met Mr. Obama in 2005 during a visit to refugees of Hurricane Katrina, he was impressed that the then-senator from Illinois did not chase TV cameras but was instead genuinely interested in the plight of the storm survivors.
The elder Mr. Bush, who underwent hip replacement surgery two years ago, walked with a cane and took slow, small steps when he appeared on stage. But he spoke with a clear, direct voice and showed no signs of deteriorating health, which had been rumored when he did not attend Sen. Edward M. Kennedy’s funeral in August.
Ron Kaufman, who was a key adviser to the elder Mr. Bush during his years as president and vice president to Ronald Reagan, said there was no political subtext to Mr. Bush’s decision more than six months ago to invite Mr. Obama to appear with him at Friday’s event.
“It is what it is,” said Mr. Kaufman, who is now an influential Washington lobbyist and top strategist and fundraiser for the man who may challenge Mr. Obama in 2012, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “The greatest club in the world is former presidents. They all have mutual respect for one another.”
Mr. Kaufman also said that the elder Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton have become good friends even though their political warfare during the 1992 presidential campaign “was a lot harsher in some respects than some of the bashing of Bush folks by Obama folks.”
Nonetheless, one note circulating among Republicans Friday was the fact that the deficit this year - $1.4 trillion - is greater than the combined deficit of the last four years of the Bush administration.
Mr. Obama said service was an issue that transcended political differences, and argued that it is vital to the country’s “national priorities,” including a return to economic health, a cleaner environment, and national security.
The president also told the overwhelmingly conservative audience that volunteerism is important because the government can only do so much.
“The need for action always exceeds the limits of government,” he said. “There’s a lot that government can’t and shouldn’t do, and that’s where active and engaged citizens come in.”
Outside the speech were about 100 protesters who, despite the president’s rhetoric, believe he intends to create a government-run health care system and raise taxes, among other things.
One protester held a giant yellow flag with the Revolutionary era slogan “Don’t Tread on Me,” and another person held a sign that said, “You lie,” echoing the words of Rep. Joe Wilson, South Carolina Republican, during the president’s recent speech to Congress.
The first president Bush, who sat onstage as Mr. Obama spoke, was also joined on the dais by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who served as CIA director under the elder Mr. Bush and was Texas A&M’s president from 2002 to 2007.
The event represented a coming together of two leaders from different parties, different generations, and radically different backgrounds.
This point was no more obvious than when Mr. Obama’s domestic policy adviser, Melody Barnes, took part in a panel before the president’s speech.
“I understand there is a tradition, a sign of friendship and respect,” said Miss Barnes, an East Coast lawyer with a long record of work in civil rights issues.
“So the first thing I’m supposed to do, substantively, is say ‘howdy.’ ”
The crowd roared back, “Howdy!”