Former President George W. Bush quickly broke the ice and sliced through the awkwardness of sharing a stage with President Obama, who regularly assails his record on the stump, during the unveiling of the 43rd president’s official portrait.
In a rare public appearance with former first lady Laura Bush and his two daughters Jenna and Barbara, as well as former President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush in the front row, Mr. Bush took the stage and jokingly noted the symmetry between his portrait and the one hanging on the wall behind him of George Washington.
“I am pleased that my portrait brings an interesting symmetry to the White House collection: It now starts and ends with George W,” he said with a laugh.
Recalling that first lady Dolley Madison revered the first president’s portrait so much that she saved it before the British burned the White House in 1812, Mr. Bush looked out in the audience to first lady Michelle Obama.
“If anything happens, Michelle,” he said, pointing to his own portrait, “this is your man.”
The audience, made up of former Bush administration officials including chief political strategist Karl Rove, family members and friends, broke into jubilant laughter that grew louder with Mr. Bush’s next line, when he advised Mr. Obama to “gaze at his portrait” whenever he had a big decision to make and ask himself, “What would George do?”
Now retired and living on his ranch in Crawford, Texas, far away from the media spotlight, Mr. Bush stole the show with his trademark jocularity while the Obamas, in the middle of an intense race for a second term, were forced to play the gracious hosts and focus on the common experiences of living in the White House and the pressures of the job.
“We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences,” Mr. Obama said.
He thanked the Bush family for its gracious assistance when leaving the White House and turning it over to the Obamas in late 2008 and for the advice the Bush daughters gave to Malia and Sasha to “surround themselves with loyal friends; never stop doing what they love; to slide down the banisters occasionally; play sardines on the lawn; to meet new people and try new things; and to try to absorb everything and enjoy all of it.”
“I can tell you that Malia and Sasha took that advice to heart — it really meant a lot to them,” Mr. Obama said while Jenna and Barbara dabbed tears from their eyes.
From his tribute to Mr. Bush in the White House State Room, observers would never know that Mr. Obama had spent the majority of his presidency blaming his predecessor for leaving a host of problems on the White House doorstep for him to solve, everything from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the loss of America’s prestige in the eyes of the world, to the worst recession since the 1930s, as well as soaring deficits.
Mr. Obama has based his election strategy on accusing former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney of engaging in a back-to-the-future strategy — of returning to the what he argues are the failed polices of the Bush administration, which led to a worldwide economic collapse and the highest unemployment since the Great Depression.
But if Mr. Obama felt a tad awkward welcoming his chief foil to the White House for a ceremony honoring his service, the White House was not about to admit it.
“There were differences, I’m sure, in the past when incumbent presidents have presided over these ceremonies,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. “But there is so much in common for the men thus far who have occupied this office and for their families who have lived in the White House, that I think there is a great deal of respect and appreciation held by everyone who is participating.”