An entire generation has gone by since the nation last saw this tableau of US history: every living US president together at the White House. Consider it time for a reunion among the members of one of the world’s most elite clubs, plus the one man about to join it: president-elect Barack Obama.
Picking up on an idea from Obama, US President George W. Bush yesterday was hosting a lunch for the incoming president and the three living former presidents: Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. It will be the first time all the living presidents have gathered at the White House since 1981.
Bush and Obama also were to meet privately for roughly 30 minutes in the Oval Office before the lunch. That one-on-one meeting, coming just 13 days before Obama’s inauguration, is more likely to zero in on grim current events, with war in the Gaza Strip and the US economy in a recession.
Considering the bond they hold in history, US presidents get together infrequently, particularly at the White House. And when they are in the same room, it is usually for a milestone or somber moment — a funeral of a world leader, an opening of a presidential library, a commemoration of history.
Not this time.
The White House says Obama suggested the idea of a presidential gathering when he met Bush in the Oval Office in November. And Bush went for it.
“It’s going to be an interesting lunch,” Bush told an interviewer.
When asked what the five men would talk about, Bush said: “I don’t know. I’m sure [Obama’s] going to ask us all questions, I would guess. If not, we’ll just share war stories.”
They have plenty of those and their paths to power have long been entwined.
Carter lost the presidency to Ronald Reagan, whose running mate was George H.W. Bush, who later won election but lost after one term to Clinton. Then George H.W. Bush’s son, the current president, defeated Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore. And this year Obama won after long linking his opponent to current president Bush.
Those campaign rivalries tend to soften over time as presidents leave the White House and try to adopt the role of statesmen — although Carter, even as an ex-president, has had some critical public words for the current president’s foreign policy.
All five men were to pose for a group photo in the Rose Garden — the media’s only glimpse of them — before having lunch in a private dining room off the Oval Office. No one else was expected to join them.
“All of us would love to be flies on the wall and listening to that conversation,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said.
She added: “I’m sure their conversation will range from everything from personal experiences here — I’m sure they’ll talk a little bit about raising children in the White House, raising children when you’re a public figure and how to protect them.”
It was also quite possible, given the heavyweights in the room, that the topics could be far weightier. Both Bush presidents, Clinton and Carter have had extensive experience coping with Middle East strife; Obama is about to inherit a bloody conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas.
All of the living presidents were last at the White House in 1981: Richard Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan, who was president then. The three former presidents were there before leaving as part of the American delegation to the funeral of Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, who had been assassinated.