The two men who shared a White House stage were, by any measure, political enemies: President Bush, the Republican incumbent locked in a tough reelection fight, and Bill Clinton, his Democratic predecessor, who defeated Bush's father a dozen years ago.

But, for a little while at least, the two looked today like the best of friends, and politics seemed to be forgotten. Setting aside their differences, they heaped praise on one another, laughed at each other's jokes and generally gave convincing performances as the gracious host and appreciative guest.

The occasion was the unveiling of the official White House portraits of president Clinton and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Joining the Clintons and their daughter, Chelsea, at the ceremony as guests of President Bush and first lady Laura Bush were various Cabinet members and other officials from Clinton's eight years in office. Also in attendance was the artist who painted the portraits: 68-year-old Simmie Knox, a story unto himself.

Knox, who was born into a family of sharecroppers in Alabama, is the first African American artist to have a presidential portrait hang in the White House.

In his remarks at the unveiling in the East Room, Bush said Clinton demonstrated "incredible energy and great personal appeal" as a candidate for public office.

"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 that Americans like in a president," Bush said as the Clintons sat in front of him in the first row of chairs. "Bill Clinton could always see a better day ahead -- and Americans knew he was working hard to bring that day closer.

"Over eight years, it was clear that Bill Clinton loved the job of the presidency," Bush continued. "He filled this house with energy and joy. He's a man of enthusiasm and warmth, who could make a compelling case and effectively advance the causes that drew him to public service."

The biggest reaction to Bush's speech came when he spoke of the former president's drive to meet expectations of success.

"And meeting those expectations took more than charm and intellect -- it took hard work and drive and determination and optimism," Bush said. "And after all, you've got to be optimistic to give six months of your life running the McGovern campaign in Texas."

Clinton, who worked in Bush's home state on the failed 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern, burst into loud laughter, his face turning red.

Bush noted some of Clinton's other accomplishments, including his standing as the first Democrat to win reelection to the White House since Franklin D. Roosevelt.

"And I could tell you more of the story, but it's coming out in fine bookstores all over America," Bush added to laughter and applause in what amounted to a plug for Clinton's forthcoming memoir.

Bush also heaped praise on Hillary Rodham Clinton, currently a Democratic senator from New York and a favorite target of conservatives.

Calling her "a woman greatly admired in our country," Bush said Sen. Clinton "inspires respect and loyalty from those who know her, and it was a good day in both their lives when they [the Clintons] met at the . . . Yale Law School Library."

Bush also noted that as of today, Hillary Clinton "is the only sitting senator whose portrait hangs in the White House."

In response, Bill Clinton said he was honored to join Bush for the third time in recent days, the previous two occasions being the dedication of the World War II Memorial in Washington and the state funeral Friday for former president Ronald Reagan.

"The president, by his generous words to Hillary and me today, has proved once again that in the end, we are held together by this grand system of ours that permits us to debate and struggle and fight for what we believe is right," Clinton said.

Clinton allowed that he had "mixed feelings" about attending today's ceremony. He recalled visiting a grade school in Cleveland during his presidency and assuring a small boy that he really was president.

"But you're not dead yet," he said the boy replied.

Clinton also remarked that he received three letters in 1992, the year he defeated president George H.W. Bush, offering him free plastic surgery on his face.

"I worked hard for this face and would like to live in it a little while longer," he said he replied to one of the surgeons.

Hillary Clinton, standing before her own portrait, paid tribute to Knox, who she said was "more than understanding" in painting the likenesses of two impatient people.

Knox, a self-taught artist, is known for his portraits of Supreme Court justices Thurgood Marshall and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, comedian Bill Cosby, boxer Muhammad Ali and baseball star Henry Aaron.