Bush, Obama Celebrate Volunteerism

By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 17, 2009

COLLEGE STATION, Tex. -- For eight months, President Obama has been methodically moving to overturn his predecessor's policies, turn back his eight-year imprint on government and undo his legacy.

George W. Bush loyalists have been left to quietly fume as their former boss has retreated to the solitude of a private life.

But Friday, Obama stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Bush's father, the 41st president, in a joint celebration of volunteerism and civic involvement that hinted at a possible thaw that might yet emerge between the two camps.

At Texas A&M University, during a commemoration of George H.W. Bush's call to service in his 1989 inaugural address, Obama heaped praise on the former president for offering a "vision that's changed lives across this country."

Bush, walking slowly and with a cane, returned the admiration. He described his first encounter with Obama in 2005, when the then-senator arrived in Houston to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"He came without fanfare, and I could quickly see he was someone who genuinely cared about helping others," said Bush, whose presidential library and foundation are based at the university. "I salute the president for his leadership on this issue."

Aides to the 41st and 44th presidents played down the political significance of the event, calling it merely a recognition of the special importance that both men place on the need for an increase in public service.

"It's a very important event for both of them," said Ron Kaufman, who served as Bush's political director and has been a longtime confidant. "They are both steeped in volunteerism."

Nick Shapiro, a spokesman for Obama, said the president "shares President Bush's belief that serving one's community is a core American value which transcends the partisanship that too often dominates public life in Washington."

But, though stark policy differences between the two camps remain, it was difficult to ignore the striking image of the two men -- the 85-year-old former Republican president and the Democrat who became president in part by criticizing his son.

On stage in front of more than 2,500 people, they shook hands firmly. After Obama's speech, they embraced and walked off the stage together to military hymns.

"Politics is politics," Kaufman said. "But some things are bigger than that."

In an interview with CBS Radio News just before the event, the elder Bush made clear that he is bothered by the assault on his son's policies. He criticized cable talk show hosts, saying "the way they treat my son and anyone who's opposed to their point of view is just horrible."

But he also said the attacks on Obama "sometimes cross the lines of civility," and he urged people to tone down the angry rhetoric aimed at the current White House occupant.

"People ought to be civil," the elder Bush said. "I worry about yelling at people and this yelling mentality that seems to accompany presidents."

Obama's appearance at the event was Bush's idea, aides said. The former president raised the prospect about six months ago and the schedule was finalized late this summer.

Key to the decision, Obama officials said, was Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, who also served in both Bush presidencies and who is a former president of Texas A&M.

Gates was on hand for Obama's 20-minute address, in which he saluted the explosion of volunteering that has occurred since the former president spoke in his inaugural address of "a thousand points of light" and since he created the first permanent White House office of public service.

"He didn't call for one blinding light shining from Washington," Obama said. "He didn't just call for a few bright lights from the biggest nonprofits. . . . Today, 20 years later, think for a minute about the impact he's had."

Obama used the opportunity to tout his own efforts to increase public service opportunities and gently scolded young people who say they are too busy to volunteer in their communities. Obama, who has launched sweeping expansions of federal spending and programs, also lauded the power of civic involvement -- and the limits of government.

"The need for action always exceeds the limits of government," Obama said. "There's a lot that government can't and shouldn't do, and that's where active and engaged citizens come in."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company