At the height of their careers, they had their highly public differences; today they share membership in the nation’s most elite club but rarely even try to get a quorum together.
On Monday night, though, all the living ex-presidents gathered at the Kennedy Center to honor the eldest of them. George H.W. Bush was lauded by peers — Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, and his son George W. Bush — for inspiring a national volunteerism movement. The glitzy fundraising gala benefiting the Points of Light Institute paid tribute to individual volunteers across the country, with a middle-brow-eclectic backing track of showbiz pros (country pickers, soul singers, ex-rappers) to make it all TV-ready — but kept a warm-hearted focus on the 86-year-old who was our 41st commander-in-chief.
“Every five years,” said Clinton, one of his best friends of recent years, “he makes me look like a wimp by insisting on jumping out of an airplane.”
Noted: Ex-presidents don’t do red carpet — a security measure that is no doubt a privilege of the job as well. Some of the higher-wattage stars (Brad Paisley, Cee-Lo, Kid Rock) also managed to skip the media gantlet on their way in, reports our colleague Aaron Leitko, but most gamely stumbled through to share their on-point thoughts about the occasion: Good works are cool, man.
“The more we do the virtual and the more we do the internet, the more separate we become,” explained semi-retired country legend Garth Brooks. He praised Bush 41 for old-school hands-on values. “This is what he’s advocating: lets get face to face.”
“To have four former presidents in the same room — you can’t say no to that invitation,” gushed Darius Rucker, the Hootie & the Blowfish front man, now enjoying a second act as a rootsy Nashville crooner. Which president does he honor most? “All of them,” he said. Did he vote for Bush 41? Rucker chuckled nervously. “I don’t remember.”
The evening was a rare treat for Bushwatchers, with all of the patriarch’s children (Jeb, Neil and Doro, as well as Bush 43) and a vast array of mostly-grown grandkids shuffling in. (For those of you squinting at the photos — yes, Jenna Bush Hager with husband Henry; and Neil’s fashionista daughter Lauren with fiance David Lauren, Ralph’s son.). But the evening maintained a civil and decidedly non-partisan tone. Jimmy and Rosalynn, George and Laura, and Bill Clinton (solo that night) took seats inside the Opera House with the guest of honor and Barbara Bush. (President Obama, in Chile Monday night, sent a video tribute.)
In an introduction, Points of Light board member Neil Bush praised Clinton – who formed a tight bond with the elder Bush on joint fundraising initiatives for disaster relief – as “a brother from another mother.”
The stars belted out a few hits to leaven the speeches — after all, the show is scheduled for broadcast on NBC next Monday at 8 p.m. “When we say ‘celebration,’ we mean music, inspirational, fun, and short-winded speeches,” said Reba McEntire, who acted as an unofficial emcee and jokester.
Rock performed his twangy, pickup-revving tune, “Born Free.” Cee-Lo and soul veteran Sam Moore bopped through a medley of the latter’s hits, “Soul Man” and “Hold On! I’m Comin’.” Sheryl Crow, scheduled to appear and spotted in Georgetown earlier Monday, was nowhere to be seen; organizers said she fell ill.
And each former POTUS took a turn in the spotlight, mostly to honor outstanding volunteers. Carter (introducing Chad Pregracke, founder of a river conservation non-profit that has fished some 55,752 bag of trash and one Econoline van out of the Mississippi) was soft spoken and earnest. Dubya (who honored Chip Chapelle, a UPS employee who organized shipments for Haiti earthquake victims) still talks very slowly.
Clinton, now firmly ensconced in his role as the nation’s oversharing uncle, gave a tender speech about his friendship with the man he beat in 1992, later his mentor in How to Be an Ex-President.
Bush helped him find his way into charity work, a path that wasn’t obvious at the outset, Clinton said. “When you leave the White House, at first you’re lost, because nobody plays a song when you walk into the room.”