WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Only days after former President George W. Bush backed his Republican opponent, President Barack Obama warmly welcomed the Texan back to the White House and praised his “extraordinary service” to the country.
Political irony hung over the emotional event that brought Bush and his wife, Laura, back to Washington: the unveiling of their official portraits, which will hang among those of other U.S. presidents in the Grand Foyer of the White House.
Bush, who has made no secret of his disdain for Washington since returning to Texas, entered the room to the tune of “Hail to the Chief,” a song he considered pretentious during his time in office.
“Welcome back to the house you called home for eight years,” Obama told the Bushes. After bashing Bush’s policies in his 2008 race and often since then, Obama praised his predecessor for his handling of the September 11, 2001 attacks and for his work on the financial crisis.
After Obama spoke, Bush came to the stage, looked at the portraits of himself and his wife, turned to the crowd and winked. Bush’s portrait by artist John Howard Sanden shows him in the Oval Office, wearing a gray suit and blue tie, his hand resting on an arm chair. His lips are closed with a slight smile on his face.
Mrs. Bush was portrayed wearing a midnight blue gown and standing in the White House’s Green Room, which she helped refurbish in 2007.
Portrait unveiling ceremonies are traditionally devoid of partisan rhetoric, but in an election year, politics was in the air.
Among the cheering crowd of former Bush administration officials and friends was former adviser Karl Rove, who now runs a group that is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Obama on November 6.
Bush played on the irony in a humorous quip to Obama.
“I am also pleased, Mr. President,” he said, “that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, ‘What would George do?’”
Obama drew laughs when thanking his predecessor for leaving the White House equipped with a premium television sports package.
“I use it!” Obama said.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama joined the former first couple as well as President George H. W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, for lunch before the unveiling.
The elder Bush, soon to be 88, was rolled by wheelchair into the East Room, where the portrait event was held. The former first lady snapped photos from her front row seat.
Obama and the younger Bush are not close and have met only twice since Bush left office.
In 2010, Obama called on Bush and former President Bill Clinton to publicize a drive to raise money for Haiti’s earthquake survivors. They met again in 2011 to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the September 11 attacks together in New York.
Obama has met with the senior Bush several times, and White House spokesman Jay Carney made a point on Thursday of saying Obama respected the 41st president’s foreign policy positions. He did not say the same about the younger Bush.
“We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences,” Obama said at the ceremony. “We all love this country. We all want America to succeed.”
Obama is in facing a tight re-election race against former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.
While the elder Bush staged an event to endorse Romney, the younger Bush offered his backing two weeks ago in a comment to ABC News as he got on an elevator.
The 43rd president has largely stayed out of the limelight since leaving the White House in early 2009. He has steered clear of criticizing his successor although his former aides have bristled at the blame Obama has heaped on Bush.
Editing by Christopher Wilson