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."
"My friend was there, indeed, after America was attacked," Bush said.
Uribe, Bush told the audience, deserved praise for a "resolute and uncompromising" battle against Colombia's drug cartels.
"The forces of violence are on the defensive," Bush said. The crowd responded with the longest sustained applause of the afternoon.
Bush called Howard "a sturdy friend in a time of need," and noted that the former leader he calls "a Man of Steel" was in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, and "saw the burning Pentagon." Howard was criticized by his political opponents for sending Australian troops to Iraq. He was soundly defeated for reelection in 2007 and suffered the indignity of losing his seat in Parliament. Most recently, though, it was Howard's stay at Blair House that caused controversy, provoking ridicule here and in his home country.
Obama and his family had asked the Bush administration for permission to stay at the mansion prior to the inauguration so the Obama girls, Malia and Sasha, could start school. The Bush administration declined the request, saying the mansion was taken. It later was revealed that Howard and his wife, Janette, were the only overnight guests during the period the Obamas wanted to stay at the mansion. Needing a secure place to lay their heads, the Obamas opted to stay at the Hay-Adams Hotel until their scheduled move into Blair House on Thursday.
Howard's decision to stay at the mansion piqued the feisty Australian press. A headline in the Courier-Mail screamed: "Sleep in the park, US tells Howard." The Australian newspaper wrote of "Fury as John Howard's end upsets Barack Obama's beginning," and the Herald Sun declared, "Howard bushwhacks Obama."
Howard almost had company at the manse. Blair and Uribe were invited to bunk there, too, but declined.
In eight years as president, Bush has bestowed the Medal of Freedom on, among others, an Army private who died after jumping on a grenade to save his colleagues in Iraq, boxer Muhammad Ali, "To Kill a Mockingbird" author Harper Lee and Fred Rogers of "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood."
Yesterday, though, Bush was looking ahead to a time when he won't be handing out medals anymore. He invited Blair, Howard and Uribe -- "the sort of guys who look you in the eye" -- to come on down to the ranch in Crawford for a visit.
"As you have probably heard," Bush said, "we're changing addresses." Guffaws.