George W. Bush basked in a warm White House welcome on Thursday for the unveiling of his official portrait -- and jokingly invited President Barack Obama to find inspiration there when struggling with the world's thorniest problems.
"When you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask: 'What would George do?" the 43rd president quipped.
The joke — Obama still blames Bush on the campaign trail for the sour economy, and accuses him of neglecting the decade-long Afghanistan war — drew laughter from the 44th president and an audience packed with current and former government officials.
Former First Lady Laura Bush was there, her portrait revealed alongside her husband's. Their daughters Jenna and Barbara attended the ceremony. So did former president George H. W. Bush, seated in a wheelchair, and former First Lady Barbara Bush.
"I am honored to be hanging near a man who gave me the greatest gift possible, unconditional love -- and that would be number 41," Bush, choking up, said to his father.
Obama, who ran against Bush's record in 2000 and sometimes seems to have dusted off that playbook for 2012, joked that his predecessor's legacy wasn't all that bad.
"George, I will always remember the gathering you hosted for all the living former Presidents before I took office, your kind words of encouragement. Plus, you also left me a really good TV sports package. I use it," the current president said.
The crowd was a who's-who of Bush aides: Political guru Karl Rove, former press secretary Dana Perino, former chiefs of staff Andy Card and Josh Bolten, former secretary of state Colin Powell, former attorney general Alberto Gonzales and former homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff. Former Vice President Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne were absent. But First Lady Michelle Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were present.
Tradition calls for presidents to set aside partisan jibes or the self-promotion of campaigning and focus instead on praising their predecessors. Obama was mostly successful."No one can ever truly understand what it's like being President until they sit behind that desk and feel the weight and responsibility for the first time," he said. "And that's why, from time to time, those of us who have had the privilege to hold this office find ourselves turning to the only people on Earth who know the feeling.
"We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences. We all love this country. We all want America to succeed," Obama said. He also recalled the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Obama repeatedly thanked Bush for making the presidential transition as smooth as possible. And he evoked one of the most enduring images of the Bush presidency: The former Texas governor atop a pile of rubble at Ground Zero days after September 11th, declaring through a bullhorn that "the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."
But there were slightly more strained moments, such as when Obama described the "chaotic time" in the months before he took office.
"We knew our economy was in trouble, our fellow Americans were in pain, but we wouldn't know until later just how breathtaking the financial crisis had been," he said. Obama frequently makes that argument when criticized for the sluggish recovery.
Bush, who has endorsed Romney but otherwise stayed out of the political spotlight since leaving office in January, poured on the folksy charm and joking banter.
He pointed to the portrait of George Washington that former First Lady Dolley Madison famously saved when the British burned the White House during the war of 1812. "Now, Michelle, if anything happens there's your man."
And Bush introduced Laura Bush as "the greatest First Lady ever -- sorry, Mom." And then, after the laughter subsided, added "Would you agree to a tie?"
Laura was no slouch in the humor department, thanking the Obamas and telling them "I'm sure you know nothing makes a house a home like having portraits of its former occupants staring down at you from the walls."
Michelle Obama praised Laura for "providing such a wonderful model of strength and grace for me to follow as First Lady." She also said the Bushes had done "a terrific job" raising their twin daughters and that she hoped her own daughters Sasha and Malia would one day "sit up straight" and "think lovingly about their mom and their dad" under similar circumstances.
Biden, who has been largely absent from Washington this week as he prepares for his daughter's wedding, attended today's event as well, seated to the left of the elder Barbara Bush. The voluble Biden played co-host, sharing a laugh with Card, chatting up the Bush twins and shaking hands like a candidate running for office. There was no word on whether Biden asked Bush, whose daughter Jenna wed in May 2008, for tips on the father-daughter dance.
The political truce came exactly one week after Obama mockingly referenced Bush's economic policies at a campaign event in Redwood City, California. He accused Mitt Romney of pursuing the same economic approach that, he charged, precipitated the 2007-2008 economic meltdown.
"The fact is there's nothing new about these ideas. They've been peddling this stuff for years," he said. "That was tried, remember? The last guy did all this."
The exclusive club of presidents — Obama, both Bushes, Bill Clinton, and Jimmy Carter — rarely gets together. But the shared burdens of office have a way of smoothing over frequently difficult personal relationships.
Bush extended an effusive welcome to Clinton under similar circumstances in 2004 — mid-way through a hard-fought reelection campaign. The Republican had freely assailed Clinton's policies (and his personal foibles) during the 2000 election. Bush's vow to "restore honor and dignity to the White House" served to remind voters of the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. But all of that was forgotten as the Texan poured on the charm.
"The years have done a lot to clarify the strengths of this man" Bush said at the ceremony revealing the Clintons' portraits. "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. Bill Clinton could always see a better day ahead -- and Americans knew he was working hard to bring that day closer."
Bush also noted Chelsea's presence, and quipped: "The fact that you survived your teenage years in the White House speaks to the fact that you had a great mom and dad."
Bush's highest-profile public event in recent years was with Clinton at the White House in January 2010, when they recorded an appeal for humanitarian aid to help earthquake-ravaged Haiti.
Bush's official biography on the White House web site developed by Obama staffers notes that the Iraq war was "his most controversial act" but it is largely upbeat.
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