WASHINGTON -- In a rare public tribute to his predecessor, President Obama unveiled the formal White House portrait of George W. Bush on Thursday, praising his "strength and resolve" after the9/11 terrorist attacks.
Obama recalled the sight of Bush standing atop the rubble at ground zero, "bullhorn in hand," conveying strength not only to the American people but, on behalf of the country, to the wider world.
They were the most laudatory words Obama has spoken publicly about Bush, whose record in office and as commander in chief he assailed during his 2008 campaign for president. After taking office, Obama regularly blamed Bush for the economic mess that awaited him upon inauguration.
Though unusual, Obama's praise was far from effusive. The tribute contained a reference to the poor state of the economy when he took office, and he brought up the successful Navy SEALs mission that "delivered justice" to Osama bin Laden, whom Bush pursued in vain throughout his presidency.
But Obama left out any explicit blame for the economy, and he thanked people over the span of "two administrations" who laid the groundwork for the Bin Laden operation. He also thanked Bush for setting up "a really good TV sports package" for him to enjoy.
"I use it," Obama told the crowd, which included Bush and former First Lady Laura Bush as well as Bush's parents, former President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, and veterans from the George W. Bush White House.
The younger Bush has refrained from criticizing his successor during his retirement, saying that Obama deserved his silence. He previously avoided all but the most terse of public interactions with Obama.
On Thursday, he had the last word as he stood looking at his portrait, depicting him in a dark suit, on the verge of his signature grin.
As Obama grapples with difficult decisions to come, Bush said, he hopes the younger man will wander by the newest portrait and ask himself one question:
"What would George do?" he said, to thunderous laughter.