At the end of May, US President Barack Obama invited former US president George W. Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, to the White House for the unveiling of their portraits. During the ceremony, Obama praised his predecessor and thanked him for the help both he and Laura had given the Obamas before they moved into the White House, thus ensuring a smooth transition.
Obama said: “We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences,” adding that they had both worked hard in the US’ best interests.
Obama went on to say how he would never forget the photograph of Bush standing on the rubble of the collapsed towers of the World Trade Center in New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. He said that his administration could not take all the credit for eliminating former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and that the Bush administration had made a considerable contribution to the planning and groundwork of the operation.
He also pointed to the continuity between their administrations, saying many of the government officials serving him had previously worked under Bush.
When it was Bush’s turn to speak, he began by politely thanking Obama and his wife for inviting him and his family to return to the White House for the unveiling ceremony.
Pointing to a portrait of the first US president, George Washington, he noted that the row of portraits now began and ended with a “George W.” He spoke about the time when UK forces set the White House alight in 1814. During the fire, the very first thing then-US president James Madison’s wife, Dolley, saved was that portrait. Bush joked that he hoped Obama’s wife, Michelle, would save his portrait first in any emergency.
He continued by saying that he agreed with Obama that being a president was not easy. There were so many complex issues to juggle and conflicting advice to heed. No matter what you end up doing you will be criticized, in some cases pilloried. No wonder, he said, that their hair grayed so quickly.
Bush added: “I am also pleased, Mr President, that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask: ‘What would George do?’” The room erupted in laughter.
Signaling to his wife, Laura, to take the stand for her own speech, Bush referred to her as the wisest first lady ever to grace the White House, before turning to his mother, Barbara Bush, first lady during the administration of former US president George H.W. Bush, “No. 41,” and apologizing.
Michelle responded to Bush’s joke about rescuing the portrait by assuring him that she would certainly go for his first. Obama noted how the value of democracy lay in the peaceful transition of political power.
Then there is Taiwan. One president finishes his term, next thing he knows he is thrown into jail. Where is the peaceful transition of power?
Now that President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) has consolidated his power, one hopes that he will find it within himself to show some presidential magnanimity and pardon former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) in the interests of national harmony.
In the US, presidents bear in mind the importance of what Obama called at the unveiling the “American priority.” During his campaign for this year’s presidential election, Ma kept assuring the electorate that his policies were based on “Taiwanese priority.”
Ma needs to assure the public that he is committed to this priority if he wants people to trust him, and if he wants his reform program to succeed.
Tsong Tien-tzou is a research fellow at the Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper