05.31.12 10:29 PM ET
Mark McKinnon at the George W. Bush Portrait Ceremony
It wasn't just a hanging as some might have expected. There was a portrait involved.
For one brief moment in Washington D.C., politics and partisanship was put aside, and presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush shared some compliments and laughs at the White House.
George and Laura Bush returned to their former home Wednesday for the unveiling of their official portraits. They were joined by friends, former staffers, and immediate family, including another president, George H. W. Bush, and his wife, Barbara, who proudly snapped photos from her front-row seat.
In fact, if there was one thing the entire room could enthusiastically agree upon, it was the shared reverence for "41," who, now 88, entered the East Wing in a wheelchair welcomed by an ovation and sustained applause. Obama has met with him more often than his son. Press Secretary Jay Carney mentioned Obama's respect for George H. W.'s foreign policy. And George W. choked up when he turned to his father and said, "I am honored to be hanging near a man who gave me the greatest gift possible, unconditional love."
But the vibe was good all around. It's clear that while they may not be friends, Obama and Bush share a lofty respect for the institution of the presidency and the White House and, therefore, go out of their way to show grace to one another.
"We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences," Obama said at the ceremony. "We all love this country. We all want America to succeed."
I've been told by Obama aides that their boss deeply appreciated how much Bush worked in 2008 to make their transition an easy one. Obama thanked him publicly today: "George, you went out of your way to make sure that the transition to a new administration was as seamless as possible. For that I will always be thankful."
And George W. was in good humor, suggesting that Obama could now in times of difficulty and crisis, turn to his portrait and ask, "What would George do?" He noted that in the East Room where the ceremony took place, hangs a painting of George Washington, which was salvaged from a fire by Dolley Madison. Bush asked Michelle Obama if, in the event of a future fire, if she would perform a similarly heroic act. (She assured him she would.) Bush noted that now the White House's first and last portraits are of George W.
Watch a presidential portrait mashup.
Friday, Obama will likely be back on the campaign trail talking about the economic mess he inherited from his predecessor. But for today the message was mostly about country and shared democratic ideals: "One of the greatest strengths of our democracy is our ability to peacefully, and routinely, go through transitions of power. It speaks to the fact that we've always had leaders who believe in America, and everything it stands for, above all else—leaders and their families who are willing to devote their lives to the country that they love."
And in perhaps the most genuine moment of the ceremony, Obama thanked Bush for leaving him a great sports TV package at the White House residence.