By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009
A real team of rivals gathered for lunch at the White House yesterday, as President Bush and three former U.S. commanders in chief put aside their political differences to offer recollections and advice to President-elect Barack Obama.
There was Jimmy Carter, who recently called Bush's presidency "the worst in history." There was Bill Clinton, who spent much of his political career decrying the Bush family dynasty. And there was Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, who once called Clinton a "bozo" and said his dog Millie knew more about foreign policy.
But all was forgotten, or at least unspoken, as the five men gripped and grinned for the cameras, then repaired to the White House dining room for a private 90-minute meal.
"One message that I have and I think we all share is that we want you to succeed," President Bush said after greeting Obama and the former presidents in the Oval Office. "Whether we're Democrat or Republican, we all care deeply about this country. . . . All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual."
Obama, who excoriated Bush for two years on the campaign trail, thanked him for hosting "an extraordinary gathering."
"All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office," he said. "For me to have the opportunity to get the advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary, and I'm very grateful."
The luncheon marked the first White House meeting of all living U.S. presidents since Oct. 8, 1981, when President Ronald Reagan had evening cocktails and hors d'oeuvres with Carter, Gerald R. Ford and Richard M. Nixon. The three former chief executives were on their way to a state funeral in Cairo for assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.
Yesterday's meeting originated as an idea from Rahm Emanuel, Obama's chief of staff, Democratic aides said. Obama then suggested the lunch to Bush during their first one-on-one meeting in the days after the Democrat's November election victory.
Obama has openly modeled himself on Abraham Lincoln's efforts to assemble a "team of rivals," naming former Democratic presidential challenger Hillary Rodham Clinton and two Republicans to his Cabinet and vowing to reach across party lines for ideas. Yesterday's gathering brought together an even headier group of political rivals, with two Republicans and three Democrats stretching back in power to 1977. From the past three decades, only Reagan, who died in 2004, was absent.
Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University in Houston, said the lunch was a "smart move" by Obama as he faces a devastated global economy, skyrocketing federal deficits and ongoing military conflicts overseas. The meeting also underscores the difference between the younger African American president-elect and his four white predecessors, he noted.
"Barack Obama can see that each of these presidents has a constituency of his own, and as he's trying to unite the country, it serves him well to be seen with them and meet with them," Brinkley said. "But it's also a chance for him to look fresh and new."
During a brief photo opportunity just after noon, the five men stood side by side in front of Bush's Oval Office desk. Obama was flanked by the Bushes, with Clinton and Carter to the left. The latter two wore red ties, while Obama and the Bushes sported various shades of blue. All were dressed in dark suits, and none of the three former presidents offered any remarks. After Bush spoke, White House aides started to wind down the gathering before realizing that Obama intended to offer remarks.
Neither the White House nor the Obama transition team shared many details from the lunch, including what they ordered from the menu. No aides were present during the meal, officials said. Obama also met one on one with Bush for about 30 minutes beforehand.
Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said in a statement that the president-elect "was grateful for their counsel and the spirit of bipartisanship they showed" in wishing him success.
"The president and the former presidents had helpful advice on managing the office, as well as thoughts on the critical issues facing the country right now," Gibbs said. "The president-elect is anxious to stay in touch with all of them in the coming years."
Dana Perino, the White House press secretary, said Bush was "delighted" to host the lunch. "They had a wide-ranging discussion on many different issues facing the United States, and they all look forward to remaining in contact in the future," she said.
Research editor Alice Crites and staff writer Anne E. Kornblut contributed to this report.