WASHINGTON — Keep your friends close, and your former presidents closer.
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President Barack Obama is welcoming his favorite foil, former President George W. Bush, back to the White House on Thursday for the official unveiling of Bush’s portrait. Given the history, the scene ought to be quite a picture.
Obama is still bad-mouthing Bush’s time in office, and it’s not just because of the debt and the unfinished wars Obama inherited. Obama sees Bush’s economic ideas as the same as his current rival, Mitt Romney, so he lumps them together.
Which makes it a little awkward that Obama is about to preside as Bush’s image and legacy are enshrined forever.
Never mind all that, say the Obama and Bush camps. This is a timeout for tradition.
The political reunion is expected to put aside any campaign rhetoric, as other gatherings among past and current presidents have, to honor nostalgia and the service of the former president and his wife, Laura.
In the heart of a re-election year, Obama will to get to rise above the fray for a day and play statesman.
He and his wife, Michelle, will host generations of Bushes for a private lunch, including former President George H.W. Bush and former first lady Barbara Bush. Family members will join them.
Then, in the ornate East Room, Obama and George W. Bush will speak as the portraits of the former president and Laura Bush are unveiled. The audience will be filled with friends and officials from Bush’s two terms in office.
No one close to the current or former president expects the least sign of animus Thursday, particularly given that their transition in 2009 was handled with grace and that they have since shared moments of help and healing.
“President Bush has been around politics a long time. He’s been around how presidents deal with each other for a long time,” said Tony Fratto, one of his former spokesmen at the White House. “He has an understanding for separating the necessities of political rhetoric from the job itself.”
Still, Bush has been holding his tongue for a long time. Obama has never run against Bush, although it was easy to forget that during the 2008 race between Obama and Sen. John McCain, when Bush’s tenure was so often Obama’s target.
In his inaugural address in 2009, Obama declared that “we are ready to lead once more,” seen by some as a dig at Bush, who was seated over his shoulder. Even now, hardly a day goes by when Obama’s team does not blame Bush for a mess.
It was just one week ago that Obama, revving up campaign donors, turned Bush into a punch line. Obama depicted presumptive Republican presidential nominee Romney as a peddler of bad economic ideas, helping the rich at the expense of the middle class. He then added: “That was tried, remember? The last guy did all this.”
Now the last guy is coming back.
Only 43 men in history, and five men alive, have held the job.
It will be a rare limelight moment for Bush, who has not been back in more than two years.
Obama and Bush have a cordial and respectful relationship, but they are not close.
Both are political veterans who are able to separate political tactics from what they see as an overarching community among people who have served in the Oval Office, according to people close to them.
History has marked this moment before, with grudges put aside.
When Bill Clinton came back for his portrait unveiling, Bush lauded him for “the forward-looking spirit that Americans like in a president.” This after he ran for the presidency to “restore honor and dignity” after Clinton’s sex scandal.
And when Clinton welcomed back George H.W. Bush, whom he had defeated, he said to him and his wife: “Welcome home. We’re glad to have you here.”
“I would be surprised if there’s very much tension” this time around, said Cal Jillson, a political science professor at Southern Methodist University who has long followed Bush’s career.
Obama has enlisted Bush’s help on earthquake relief for Haiti, and the two stood together in New York City last year in marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks on America. They have also spoken at least three times at signature moments over the last three years, including the killing of Osama bin Laden.
Still, Obama’s bashing of Bush’s record sets a backdrop.
“This president is looking for someone to blame,” Romney said while campaigning in Colorado this week. “Of course, he started off by blaming George Bush, and that worked for a while but, you know, after three and a half years that wears kind of thin.”
The White House points out that Obama praises Bush sometimes, too, such as for taking on illegal immigration.
The visit is layered with political story lines.
Bush’s brother Jeb is a potential vice presidential candidate to Romney. Bush’s father has developed a kinship of sorts with Obama. And then there is Bush himself, who has endorsed Romney but is still viewed by many in his party as politically toxic.
More than any president in recent memory, Bush has not just intentionally faded from the public spotlight but all but disappeared from it.
Bush was last at the White House in January 2010 to help out with Haiti humanitarian relief.
Bush spokesman Freddy Ford said the former president and first lady are grateful to the Obamas and looking forward to catching up with faces from their past, including staff at the Executive Mansion.
Jenna Bush Hager, one of the George W. Bush’s daughters, told “Fox & Friends” the day will be a chance to “celebrate his work, `cause he worked pretty hard, so I think he deserves at least a painting.”
As to where it will go, she said: “Probably in the very back somewhere. I’m just kidding.”
Actually, the painting will hang prominently in the formal entrance hall to the White House, the Grand Foyer.
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