President Obama spent nearly every day for two years on the campaign trail blasting former president George H.W. Bush's son. But Obama has long praised the elder Bush, particularly for his foreign policy decisions, and on Tuesday he presented the 41st president with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Bush was one of 15 people who received the award, including NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and billionaire investor Warren Buffett. (Buffett is a member of the Washington Post Co. board.)
"We honor George Herbert Walker Bush for service to America that spanned nearly 70 years, from a decorated Navy pilot who nearly gave his life in World War II, to U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, from CIA director to U.S. envoy to China, to the vice presidency," Obama said in the East Room of the White House. "His life is a testament that public service is a noble calling."
The award, the highest honor from the U.S. government that any person can receive unless they serve in the military, is given to individuals with "especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace, or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors," according to the White House.
The medal was created by President Harry S. Truman, originally to honor civilian service in World War II. Past recipients of the award have included former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, author Harper Lee and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
It has become a kind of presidential honor society, as chief executives present the award to people they admire or who support their goals. President George W. Bush gave a medal to Nelson Mandela but also to more controversial figures such as Gen. Tommy R. Franks, who oversaw the invasion of Iraq, and former Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer.
Recipients don't speak at the ceremony; the president delivers a speech that singles out each person's achievements and then awards the medals.
In 2009, Obama presented the honor to 16 people, including former U.S. Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O'Connor and actor Sidney Poitier.
Presidents have wide purview in whom they select, and the decisions often reflect their political needs and personal interests. Obama noted that his sister is named for the poet Maya Angelou, who was among Tuesday's recipients.
The selections of John H. Adams, co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council, and John J. Sweeney, former president of the AFL-CIO, highlight two important constituencies for any Democratic president - environmentalists and labor groups.
The other recipients on Tuesday were artist Jasper Johns; Gerda Weissmann Klein, a writer and Holocaust survivor; Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a leader in the civil rights movement; Tom Little, an optometrist killed by the Taliban in August who received the honor posthumously; Sylvia Mendez, a Latino civil rights activist; German Chancellor Angela Merkel (who was unable to attend) Hall of Famer Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals; and Jean Kennedy Smith, an advocate for the disabled.
Obama saved his last comments for Bush, calling the former president's wife, Barbara, "remarkable" but not mentioning son George W. Bush
"It was the steady diplomatic hand of President Bush that made possible an achievement once thought impossible - ending the Cold War without firing a shot," Obama said.
He added, "And then just to cap it off, well in the 80s, he decides to jump out of airplanes, because, as he explained, it feels good."