The line about "so much promise to no great purpose" that had Republicans cheering at their 2000 convention was forgotten. So was the unusually ugly transition -- with the exaggerated allegations about missing "W" keys on computers and mischief aboard Air Force One. And for a moment there was no mention of the 2004 campaign.
Instead, President Bush yesterday welcomed his predecessor to the White House, for the first time since he moved out, with the honorific previously bestowed only on members of his family -- a number.
"As you might know, my father and I have decided to call each other by numbers," Bush said, to laughter. "He's 41, I'm 43. It's a great honor to -- it's a great pleasure to honor Number 42. We're glad you're here, 42."
In fact, Bush and 42 -- a Democrat named Bill Clinton -- entered the East Room together to the strains of "Hail to the Chief" and for 45 minutes transformed the White House into an island of bipartisan humor and graciousness in a roiling election-year sea.
The occasion was the unveiling of Clinton's official portrait and one of his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), a traditional ceremony for former presidents and first ladies that amounted to a reunion for Clinton's family, staff and Cabinet.
Bush spoke first, lavishly lauding the man who defeated his father for reelection in 1992 and inspired his own campaign promise eight years later to restore honor and dignity to the White House. Bush kept glancing toward Clinton in the front row and at one point made Clinton laugh so hard, his face and neck turned red.
"People in Bill Clinton's life have always expected him to succeed," Bush said. "And meeting those expectations took more than charm and intellect -- it took hard work and drive and determination and optimism. And after all, you've got to be optimistic to give six months of your life running the McGovern campaign in Texas."
Clinton, who was Texas coordinator in George McGovern's doomed 1972 presidential campaign after graduating from Yale Law School, led the applause, and not with the little golf clap that is typically heard during East Room events, but a big two-armed, two-elbowed one.
Bush even plugged his predecessor's book, "My Life," which is to be published next week in a hail of publicity. After ticking off a few high points of Clinton's life, Bush added, "I can tell you more of the story, but it's coming out in fine bookstores all over America."
Clinton mentioned the book only once, as he recounted something he had told CBS's Dan Rather during an interview for next weekend's "60 Minutes."
"Most of the people I've known in this business, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, were good people, honest people, and they did what they thought was right," Clinton said. "My experience is, most of the people I've known in this work are good people who love their country desperately. And I am profoundly grateful that for a brief period I had a chance to be one of them."
Clinton sounded an equally friendly theme during a similar ceremony in 1995 when Bush's father's portrait was unveiled, complimenting his predecessor on his youthful appearance and declaring that "for President and Mrs. Bush, love of country and service to it have always meant the same thing."
Yesterday, Bush was similarly effusive. "The years have done a lot to clarify the strengths of this man," he said. "As a candidate for any office, whether it be the state attorney general or the president, Bill Clinton showed incredible energy and great personal appeal. 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 the Americans like in a president. Bill Clinton could always see a better day ahead -- and Americans knew he was working hard to bring that day closer."
Clinton, for his part, seemed to reach out to Bush, burdened by the continuing deaths of Americans in Iraq, as he described White House portraits he used to look at in what he called "the darkest days." That turned out to be reference not to impeachment but to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.
"There's one over in the Cabinet Room by a man named [Philip Alexius de] Laszlo of Theodore Roosevelt," Clinton said. "I used to look at it all the time when I felt bad and I worried, 'Was the war in Bosnia going to come out all right? Would the Kosovar refugees ever be able to go home?' Because if you look at that picture, Theodore Roosevelt, who was known as our most macho, bully, self-confident president, you look at that picture and you see here's a human being who's scared to death and not sure it's going to come out all right. And he does the right thing, anyway."
Clinton's portrait is so much larger than those of his recent predecessors that the canvas barely fits in its spot of honor. And while most presidential portraits typically have a neutral background like fabric or a landscape, Clinton had a very specific idea for the setting when he met with the artist, Simmie Knox of Silver Spring, for the first time.
"That was what he specifically told me: 'I would like my portrait to appear as if it was taking place in the Oval Office,' " Knox recalled. And so it does, with Clinton wearing a dark blue suit and light blue tie as he stands before his desk, flanked by the American and presidential flags.
The portrait of George H.W. Bush has been facing that of John F. Kennedy across the entrance hall from the North Portico; JFK will now go outside the State Dining Room. Now the elder Bush will face Clinton, whose canvas measures 56 inches by 44 inches, compared to 50 by 40 inches for Bush and Ronald Reagan.
"You know, most of the time, until you get your picture hung like this, the only artists to draw you are cartoonists," Clinton said, recounting the baby carriage, pickup truck and other unflattering accessories that so often accompanied his likeness.
Knox, a 68-year-old son of sharecroppers, is the first African American to paint an official presidential portrait. Clinton said Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recommended him to Hillary Clinton. Knox met with Clinton a month before he left the White House, and finished in 2002. Mrs. Clinton saw it, then asked him to also paint hers. The former first lady's portrait shows her in a black pantsuit, in her Washington residence with her book "It Takes a Village."
In her remarks, Hillary Clinton complimented Knox for his forbearance during their sittings. "One thing that has never been said about either my husband or I -- nearly everything else has -- but one thing that hasn't is that we are patient people," she said. "Those of you who know us, know that's not at all descriptive."
Their daughter, Chelsea, sat in the front row. The audience was filled with ex-aides helping Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.). "Everyone loves everyone equally today," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe. Weary of all the bipartisanship, he added: "We'll be back soon."