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The Picture of Political Civility

Bush praises his predecessor's 'forward-looking spirit' during the unveiling of the Clintons' official White House portraits.

June 15, 2004|Mary Curtius | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Taking a break from the bitter politics of the campaign trail, a gracious and jocular President Bush offered rare praise Monday for his predecessor at the unveiling of Bill and Hillary Clinton's official White House portraits.

A crowd of more than 200 Clinton friends, family and former administration members gathered in the elegant East Room for the ceremony, where a beaming Bush told the Clintons: "Welcome home." He lauded Clinton for embodying "the forward-looking spirit Americans like in a president," and for having "filled this house with energy and joy."

Clinton laughed out loud when Bush, after praising the former president's optimism, deadpanned: "You've got to be optimistic to give six months of your life running the McGovern campaign in Texas," a reference to the failed 1972 presidential bid of Sen. George S. McGovern (D-S.D.).

The former president said his return to the White House, at Bush's invitation, had "proved once again that, in the end, we are held together by this grand system of ours -- and most of the time we get it right."

The televised ceremony brought an unusual moment of political civility into the living rooms of Americans, who are far more used to the bare-knuckle exchanges that can typify the nation's political discourse. It was all the more unusual given the two leaders' history.

It was Clinton, the governor of Arkansas, who in 1992 ousted Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, from the Oval Office. And the current President Bush came to office in 2000 pledging "to restore honor and dignity" to the presidency after Clinton's scandal-plagued tenure -- and following an election that some Democrats still insist he stole from Clinton's vice president, Al Gore.

The ceremony came as Clinton has stepped back onto the national stage to promote his soon-to-be-released autobiography and to campaign for Bush's presumptive Democratic rival, Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry. Clinton still energizes Democrats, many of whom adore him, and Republicans, many of whom despise him.

But none of that personal baggage was in evidence Monday.

Bush recalled Clinton's humble beginnings, drive and ambition, saying that "Bill Clinton could always see a better day ahead, and Americans knew he was working hard to bring that day closer."

"Over eight years, it was clear that Bill Clinton loved the job of the presidency. He filled this house with energy and joy. He's a man of enthusiasm and warmth, who could make a compelling case and effectively advance the causes that drew him to public service."

Clinton, who noted that he and Bush had come together on three occasions in recent days -- the official dedication of the National World War II Memorial, former President Reagan's state funeral, and Monday's unveiling -- acknowledged having "mixed feelings" about returning to the White House. In a dark suit and bright blue tie similar to the one he wore for his official portrait, Clinton said that with the hanging of his portrait in the White House, he felt as though he was "stepping into history."

"In the darkest days" of his presidency, Clinton said -- referring to how he had agonized over whether his 1995 decision to send U.S. troops into Bosnia had been the right one -- he had been comforted by looking at a painting of Theodore Roosevelt.

One important point made Monday, said Jonathan Earle, an associate professor of American history at the University of Kansas, is that the office is greater than the person occupying it.

"Every time you have politicians whom people consider adversaries up together on a dais, every time we see this civility, it helps our country," Earle said.

Earle noted that Clinton had played much the same role that Bush played Monday when he invited President George H.W. Bush to the White House in 1995 to unveil the official portraits of the senior Bush and former First Lady Barbara Bush.

"If I look half as good as you do when I leave office, I'll be a happy man," Clinton told former President Bush then.

Speaking after her husband, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) made only a veiled reference to the past. She thanked the artist, Simmie Knox, for "his extraordinarily calm and gentle manner" in dealing with the Clintons.

One thing that has never been said about her husband or herself, Clinton said -- noting that "nearly everything else has been" -- was that "we are patient people." Getting them to sit still long enough to capture their likenesses in oil, she said, was a difficult task.

Mrs. Clinton said that she too "took great solace from many of the portraits of the former first ladies" during her White House years, particularly a portrait of Eleanor Roosevelt that "showed her intent and purpose-driven life."

At the ceremony's close, the president's guests headed into the State Room for a buffet luncheon of herbed chicken, couscous salad, orzo pasta with green peas and mint, salmon and roasted vegetables.

Bush, who met with the Clintons, their daughter, Chelsea, and a few other Clinton relatives before the unveiling ceremony, did not stay for lunch because of a scheduling conflict, according to his staff, although First Lady Laura Bush did. The White House served mocha cake, Mrs. Clinton's favorite, and cherry pie, Clinton's favorite, for dessert.

Clinton's portrait will hang near the Grand Staircase just inside the north entrance of the White House, taking the place of the senior Bush's portrait, which will be moved to another place in the hall. Mrs. Clinton's portrait will bump Barbara Bush's in the corridor below, along with the portraits of other first ladies.

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