COLLEGE STATION, Texas – For eight months, President Barack Obama has been methodically moving to overturn his predecessor’s policies, turn back his eight-year imprint on government and undo his legacy.
George W. Bush loyalists have been left to quietly fume as their former boss has retreated to the solitude of a private life.
But Friday, Obama stood shoulder-to-shoulder with President Bush’s father, the 41st president, in a joint celebration of volunteerism and civic involvement that hinted at a possible thaw that might yet emerge between the two camps.
At the 20th anniversary of the Points of Light Institute, founded with the encouragement of George H.W. Bush during his 1989 inaugural address, Obama heaped praise on the former president for offering a “vision that’s changed lives across this country.”
Bush, walking slowly and with a cane, returned the admiration, describing his first encounter with Obama in 2005, when the then-senator arrived in Houston to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
“He came without fanfare and I could quickly see he was someone who genuinely cared about helping others,” Bush said. “I salute the president for his leadership on this issue.”
Aides to the 41st and 44th presidents downplayed the political significance of the event, calling it merely a recognition of the special importance that both men place on the need for an increase in public service.
“It’s a very important event for both of them,” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime Bush confidant who served as the first president Bush’s political director. “They are both steeped in volunteerism.”
Although stark policy differences remain between the two camps, it was difficult to ignore the striking image of the two men together – the 85-year-old former Republican president and the Democrat who became president in part by criticizing his son.
On stage in front of more than 2,500 people at Texas A&M University, they shook hands firmly. After Obama’s speech, they embraced and walked off the stage together to the sound of military hymns.
“Politics is politics,” Kaufman said. “But some things are bigger than that.”
In an interview with CBS Radio News just before the event, the elder Bush made clear that he is bothered by the assault on his son’s policies. He criticized cable talk show hosts, saying “the way they treat my son and anyone who’s opposed to their point of view is just horrible.”
But he also said the attacks on Obama “sometimes cross the lines of civility” and he urged people to tone down the angry rhetoric aimed at the current White House occupant.
“People ought to be civil,” the elder Bush said. “I worry about yelling at people and this yelling mentality that seems to accompany presidents.”
Obama’s appearance at the event was Bush’s idea, aides said. The former president raised the prospect about six months ago and the schedule was finalized late this summer.
Key to the decision, Obama officials said, was Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who also served in both Bush presidencies and who is a former president of Texas A&M, where the elder Bush’s presidential library and foundation are based.