Bush Awards Medals of Freedom to John Howard, Tony Blair and Alvaro Uribe

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 14, 2009

America's most inconvenient houseguest received the Presidential Medal of Freedom yesterday in a White House ceremony.

Former Australian prime minister John Howard accepted the nation's highest civilian honor after spending the night at Blair House, the 119-room presidential guesthouse -- edging out someone else who had hoped to crash there . . . President-elect Barack Obama.

Appearing well rested after his night at the exclusive address, Howard jokingly clutched his neck, as if he were about to be choked, as Bush prepared to bestow the medal. That one cracked up an East Room crowd packed in to see Bush honor Howard and two other staunch allies, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe and former British prime minister Tony Blair.

Up there onstage with his "three good friends," Bush seemed to be having a blast. There was winking. There was grinning. There was mock fighting.

Yes, that was the president of the United States playfully punching the left arm of the slightly built, bespectacled Uribe -- "mi amigo," Bush called him.

Uribe, perhaps wisely given the presence of the Secret Service, didn't punch back.

For Blair, Bush's old BFF from the run-up to the Iraq war, the president had a reminiscence rather than a sock. He told the one about his first visit with Blair, when a reporter asked whether they had anything in common.

"I jokingly replied that we both used Colgate toothpaste," Bush said to an audience that included Rush Limbaugh, Vice President Cheney and a whole lot of "formers" -- former secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Senate majority leader Trent Lott and former secretary of state Colin Powell.

And so it went.

Howard, Bush told the crowd, was asked years ago about making a political comeback. He responded that his chances were as good as "Lazarus with a triple bypass," but went on to become Australia's second-longest-serving prime minister, Bush said.

"The man has got an unusual way of speaking," America's occasionally "misunderestimated" president said of Australia's metaphor-mangling former leader.

For all the goofing around, Bush also found time for serious reflection, lauding friends who suffered politically for siding with him. Bush praised Blair, who resigned in 2007, and Howard for sending troops to Iraq. He credited Blair with ushering in "a new era of peace in Northern Ireland." Blair "understood the stakes in the war on terror," Bush said, and will "stand tall in history."


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