Tuesday, June 15, 2004

President Bush and former President Bill Clinton set aside their political differences yesterday and praised each other effusively when Mr. Bush received his predecessor at the White House for the unveiling of Mr. Clinton’s official portrait.

Mr. Bush, who succeeded Mr. Clinton after pledging to restore “honor and dignity” to the White House, yesterday made no mention of his predecessor’s sex scandals or impeachment. In fact, he sounded like an admirer.

“The years have done a lot to clarify the strengths of this man,” Mr. Bush said during an East Room ceremony. “As a candidate for any office, whether it be the state attorney general or the president, Bill Clinton showed incredible energy and great personal appeal.”

Mr. Clinton thanked Mr. Bush for the hospitality, but acknowledged that he felt ambivalent about returning to the White House for the first time since his successor’s inauguration.

“Mr. President, I had mixed feelings coming here today, and they were only confirmed by all those kind and generous things you said,” he said. “Made me feel like I was a pickle stepping into history.”

Mr. Clinton went on to complain about the harshness of politics and talked about being interviewed by CBS anchorman Dan Rather to promote his book, “My Story,” which will be published next week.

“I’ve just been doing some interviews in connection with my book, and I told Mr. Rather yesterday, I said: ‘You know, most of the people I’ve known in this business, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, were good people, honest people, and they did what they thought was right,’ ” Mr. Clinton said.

“And I hope that I’ll live long enough to see American politics return to vigorous debates where we argue who’s right and wrong, not who’s good and bad,” he added.

Also unveiled was a portrait of former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, the junior Democratic senator from New York. Mr. Bush, who once called Mrs. Clinton “irresponsible” for suggesting that he had advance knowledge of the September 11 attack plans, yesterday lauded her “commitment to public service.”

“Listen, New York politics is a serious business — it’s rough business,” he said. “It takes an extraordinary person to campaign and win the United States Senate. She has proven herself more than equal to the challenge.”

But Mr. Bush saved his most expansive plaudits for Mr. Clinton, saying the Democrat succeeded in politics because of his “charm and intellect” and his willingness to work hard against long odds.

“It took hard work and drive and determination and optimism,” Mr. Bush said. “And after all, you’ve got to be optimistic to give six months of your life running the McGovern campaign in Texas.”

Mr. Clinton erupted in laughter at the joke, clapping and slapping his knee as his face turned crimson. Also laughing were several hundred Clinton administration officials, ranging from aide Sidney Blumenthal to Defense Secretary William Perry.

Noticeably absent from yesterday’s ceremony was former Vice President Al Gore, who distanced himself from Mr. Clinton during his unsuccessful campaign against Mr. Bush in 2000.

By contrast, when Mr. Clinton hosted a ceremony for the unveiling of former President George Bush’s portrait in 1995, former Vice President Dan Quayle attended. That ceremony also was marked by similar displays of admiration between the two men, who had harshly criticized eachother during the 1992 campaign.

Yesterday, both Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton avoided mentioning their profound policy differences. While Mr. Clinton raised taxes and treated terrorism as a criminal matter, Mr. Bush has slashed taxes and waged a global war against terrorism.

Still, Mr. Clinton alluded to the difficulties of his presidency. He talked of “the darkest days,” when he sought solace by gazing at a portrait of former President Theodore Roosevelt.

“I used to look at it all the time when I felt bad and I worried: Was the war in Bosnia going to come out all right? Would the Kosovar refugees ever be able to go home?” he recalled.

He added that although Mr. Roosevelt “was known as our most macho, bully, self-confident president,” he also was “a human being who’s scared to death and not sure it’s going to come out all right. And he does the right thing, anyway.”

Mrs. Clinton, who ruefully remarked yesterday that “nearly everything” had been said about her and her husband during the Clinton era, also alluded to the travails of her husband’s presidency.

“I took also great solace from many of the portraits of the former first ladies, because it is a very difficult role and it is one that you do not seek,” she said. “But you support the person you love who is seeking the presidency.”

Mrs. Clinton, who once was ridiculed for holding imaginary conversations with the ghost of former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, said yesterday that she drew strength from Mrs. Roosevelt’s White House portrait, which “just showed her intent and purpose-driven life.”

Sticking with the Roosevelt theme, Mr. Bush praised his predecessor as “the first man in his party since Franklin Roosevelt to win a second term in the White House. And I could tell you more of the story, but it’s coming out in fine bookstores all over America.”

Mr. Bush, who once accused Mr. Clinton of failing to “lead,” went out of his way yesterday to find something nice to say about the Democrat who vanquished his father in 1992.

“As chief executive, he showed a deep and far-ranging knowledge of public policy, a great compassion for people in need, and the forward-looking spirit the Americans like in a president,” Mr. Bush said.

Mr. Bush, who calls his father “41” and himself “43” to signify their place in the presidential pantheon, gave Mr. Clinton a new nickname — “42.” Mr. Clinton seemed touched.

“The president, by his generous words to Hillary and me today, has proved once again that in the end, we are held together by this grand system of ours that permits us to debate and struggle and fight for what we believe is right,” he said.

Mr. Clinton’s portrait will hang in the grand foyer of the White House, bumping a portrait of the elder Mr. Bush to another location. Mrs. Clinton’s portrait will hang one level lower, with those of other first ladies.

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