WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, joined all the living U.S. presidents on Wednesday for a historic meeting at the White House two weeks before the country’s next transfer of power.
Bush, a Republican, and Obama, a Democrat, met privately for about 30 minutes ahead of the wider gathering.
Then former Presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, both Democrats, and Republican George H.W. Bush, the current president’s father, met Bush and Obama in the Oval Office for a photo session with journalists.
It was the first such gathering of former U.S. heads of state at the White House in 27 years.
“I want to thank the president-elect for joining the ex-presidents for lunch,” the younger Bush told Obama, who stood next to him, nodding.
“One message that I have and I think we all share is that we want you to succeed. Whether we’re Democrat or Republican, we care deeply about this country,” Bush said.
The five men, who have not always had rosy relations, smiled broadly and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a line in front of the president’s desk, with Carter standing somewhat more to the side of the group.
The senior Bush stood next to Obama, with the current president next, followed by Clinton and Carter.
“All of us who have served in this office understand that the office itself transcends the individual and we wish you all the very best, and so does the country,” Bush said to his successor. “To the extent we can, we look forward to sharing our experiences with you.”
Obama called the meeting extraordinary and thanked the current president for hosting it.
“All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office, and for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary,” he said.
When asked by a reporter what he learned from the other four men’s mistakes, Obama replied: “From their successes!”
Despite last year’s presidential campaign when Obama attacked Bush regularly over foreign and domestic policy, the transition process between the November 4 election and Obama’s January 20 inauguration has proceeded smoothly.
Though they have much in common, relations between the presidents have been strained at times.
Carter has criticized Bush’s presidency as “the worst in history” with regard to international relations. Clinton, who has a warm relationship with the senior Bush, sharply criticized the current president and Obama during his wife Hillary Clinton’s White House bid last year.
After their meeting in the Oval Office, the five men had lunch in a chandeliered private dining room that lasted more than an hour.
Aides to Obama and Bush released statements after the meeting, describing the topics discussed at lunch as wide-ranging without getting specific. Obama’s spokesman, Robert Gibbs, said the president-elect was eager to stay in touch with the former presidents in the coming years.
Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan; Editing by Xavier Briand