It was the ultimate power lunch.
And by all accounts, it went smoothly and with a remarkable spirit of comity, as President Bush hosted President-elect Barack Obama and three of their predecessors at the White House yesterday. The event came at an opportune time because, after Obama takes office January 20, he will need all the good counsel and goodwill he can find in dealing with a series of mounting problems, ranging from the economic collapse to a $1 trillion deficit, an ongoing fight against global terrorism, fighting in Gaza, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The opening photo, taken in the Oval Office prior to lunch in an adjacent private dining room, was revealing. Jimmy Carter, typically, stood a bit apart in keeping with his maverick reputation. The other four stood almost shoulder to shoulder. George H. W. Bush looked weary, a shadow of his once vigorous self. George W. Bush seemed relaxed and brimming with energy. Bill Clinton seemed fit and serene, and his effort at chitchat, captured by a media microphone, focused incongruously on how much he liked the rug in the Oval Office. Obama stood out the most, literally and symbolically, as the first African-American ever elected to the nation's highest office. He seemed confident and as easygoing as ever.
It was the first case, at least in modern times, in which the presidents came together to build relationships with and advise the man about to take over. The last group meeting of former presidents at the White House was on Oct. 8, 1981, when all the ex-presidents at the time—Carter, Gerald Ford, and Richard Nixon—met Ronald Reagan before departing for the funeral of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. But it wasn't designed to build solidarity with an incoming commander in chief, as yesterday's luncheon was.
"One message that I have and I think we all share is that we want you to succeed," George W. Bush told Obama at the opening photo op. "Whether we're Democrat or Republican, we care deeply about this country. And to the extent we can, we look forward to sharing our experiences with you. All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual, and we wish you all the very best, and so does the country."
For his part, Obama was equally gracious. "This is an extraordinary gathering," he told reporters. "All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office, and for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel, and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary, and I'm very grateful to all of them. But again, thank you, Mr. President, for hosting us."
Afterward, Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs said, "They had a very constructive conversation....The president and the former presidents had helpful advice on managing the office as well as thoughts on the critical issues facing the country right now. The president-elect is anxious to stay in touch with all of them in the coming years."
Dana Perino, George W. Bush's White House press secretary, called it a "wide-ranging discussion" and added: "They all look forward to remaining in contact in the future."
The larger question is how they can remain helpful to Obama. There is no institutional role for an ex-president, even though the "exes" have vast experience dealing with a myriad of issues, and they tend to have special relationships with many other leaders around the world.
But Obama strategists and friends say he will continue to reach out. They say Obama won't hesitate to seek advice from his predecessors or to ask them to take over specific projects or travel on special missions around the world if he thinks it will advance his agenda.