COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS — In a glowing tribute to a Republican predecessor, President Obama on Friday praised President George H.W. Bush as an example of someone who eschewed "a life of comfort and privilege" and instead devoted himself to public service -- inside government and out.
During an evening speech to honor the public service institute that Bush founded two decades ago, Obama called for cooperation between Republicans and Democrats. The former president, he said, proved that "the R or D next to your name is irrelevant" in challenging times.
"You might not always know it from watching the cable news shows or listening to folks on the radio," Obama said, but "I think we're standing in one of those moments."
For his part, Bush reflected on Obama -- the man who succeeded his son, President George W. Bush -- as someone who at their initial meeting showed greater concern for Hurricane Katrina evacuees than for the television cameras.
"He came without fanfare," Bush said of Obama's 2005 visit to the region. "He was someone I could quickly see was genuinely concerned about helping others."
They were joined onstage Friday in the Texas A&M University auditorium by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who also served in the previous administration and was CIA director under the elder Bush.
The event presented a slightly odd situation, given that Obama's administration has at times broadcast a rejection of policies and ideas under George W. Bush.
On Thursday, Obama had fielded tough questions in New Orleans about the federal response in the four years since Katrina. And he was not subtle in pointing to the failings of the younger Bush's administration.
Friends of George H.W. Bush said that he has a genuine regard for Obama and that he came up with the idea six months ago of inviting the president to come to this college town to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Points of Light Institute.
The former president is said to be unhappy with the Bush-bashing in Washington, but one former advisor said George H.W. Bush doesn't hold it against Obama.
"Politics is politics," said Ron Kaufman, a former White House political director. "But some things are bigger than that. He, like other Americans, would like to see the president be successful."
Nevertheless, in the heart of Republican country, Obama inspired some protests and criticism.
Outside the auditorium Friday, a crowd of more than 100 chanted and waved signs, including one about the Obama administration's spending and one about the national debt.
Inside, Bush had put together a polite and enthusiastic crowd.
The former president, who celebrated his 85th birthday in June with a parachute jump, walked gingerly with a cane. But he spoke in an unwavering voice of his admiration for Obama.
The evening was devoted to lauding the work of the Points of Light Institute, the name of which comes from a speech Bush gave envisioning the combined effect of individuals in public service.
Obama called on the audience of mostly college students to find time in their lives for service, even when it isn't convenient or easy.
If the senior Bush could serve in combat missions overseas, Obama said, then "you can keep going when your service project gets tough."
"He didn't call for one blinding light shining from Washington," Obama said. "He didn't just call for a few bright lights from the biggest nonprofits. . . . He called for a vast galaxy of people and institutions working to solve problems in their own backyard."