Over the last five years, neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama has had much good to say about the other, which is utterly normal when a president of one party follows a very different president from another.
So it’s all the more intriguing that Obama and Bush met briefly Tuesday in Tanzania, 7,900 miles outside of Washington, to lay a wreath at the memorial for the 11 people killed in the 1998 al-Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Dar es Salaam.
The chief feature of the two men’s relationship could, at least until recently, be characterized as genteel disregard: Obama blamed much of his problems in the first term on what Rahm Emanuel called “the gift bag” of leftovers from the Bush-era. Bush, for his part, left Washington in 2009 and went off the grid, preferring to note whenever asked that he owed the sitting president his “silence.”
But they have had their moments.
It was Bush who invited all the former presidents to the White House in January 2009, where over a plate for sandwiches, they talked about how hard it was to raise daughters in the White House. If Obama was never terribly gracious to the son, the son watched as Obama showed his father, George H.W. Bush, every courtesy, particularly in 2010. And the two men did a very brief event together at Ground Zero in lower Manhattan in September 2011, on the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. No closeness was evident: photographers recalled later how hard it was to get the two men in the same frame.
Obama journeyed to Texas earlier this year to attend the opening of Bush’s presidential library and delivered his most generous remarks to date about his predecessor, praising his record in immigration reform, AIDS and malaria, and in uniting the nation at a time of unprecedented fear and uncertainty. “The first thing I found in that desk the day I took office was a letter from George, and one that demonstrated his compassion and generosity. For he knew that I would come to learn what he had learned — that being President, above all, is a humbling job. There are moments where you make mistakes. There are times where you wish you could turn back the clock. And what I know is true about President Bush, and I hope my successor will say about me, is that we love this country and we do our best.”
An administration official described the backstory behind the meeting as “not too glamorous,” if opportune. The White House learned of Laura Bush’s plans to host a conference for African First Ladies in the course of planning the trip for the Obamas. After the White House locked-in the dates for the Obamas’ trip, they reached out to Bush aides. The first lady “was happy to join [Laura Bush] at her event,” the official added. The White House then invited the former president to join Obama at the wreath laying.
“I think the presence of the Bushes is something that marks I think the bipartisan support for Africa that exists in the United States, and it’s a very welcome symbol that they can be there at the same time,” Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes said Sunday. “We think it sends a very positive message that both political parties in the United States share a commitment to this continent.”
Throughout his trip, Obama has praised Bush for his efforts in Africa, in particular the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, known as PEPFAR, which Bush created and Obama continued.
On Sunday, Obama visited the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation Youth Center Cape Town, South Africa, a beneficiary of PEPFAR. On Monday he said of Bush, “I think this is one of his crowning achievements.”
“Because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people, millions of people’s lives have been saved,” Obama added. When an African reporter asked why the United States was devoting fewer resources to PEPFAR, Obama said it should be viewed as a success of the Bush program that money could be diverted to other public health crises.
“Given the budget constraints, for us to try to get the kind of money that President Bush was able to get out of the Republican House for massively scaled new foreign aid programs is very difficult,” the president said Friday on Air Force One. “We could do even more with more resources. But if we’re working smarter, the amount of good that we can bring about over the next decade is tremendous.”
It is in that spirit, perhaps, that Bush over the weekend provided some bipartisan cover for the president on the controversial surveillance programs Bush himself created. “I put the program in place to protect the country and one of the certainties is civil liberties were guaranteed,” a t-shirt wearing Bush said Sunday in an interview with CNN from Tanzania. “I think there needs to be a balance and as the president described, there is a proper balance.”
Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete addressed the feeling in his country around the unusual reunion of presidents. “Were we excited,” he asked rhetorically in response to a question from a reporter. “We have the President and the former President in Tanzania at the same time. It’s a blessing to this country.”