Obama, Bush discuss power handover

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NEW ENTRANT: U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush greet President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on Monday at the South Portico of the White House in Washington.
NEW ENTRANT: U.S. President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush greet President-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on Monday at the South Portico of the White House in Washington.

Ewen MacAskill

Washington: When the 43rd U.S. President met the man who will be the 44th at the White House on Monday, both made an effort to ensure it would look more cordial than their first encounter. On that meeting four years ago, the two did not get on. Matters were not helped at the start when a presidential aide squirted sanitiser on George Bush’s hands before they shook.

This time, there was no sanitiser and no sign of the condescension that U.S. President-elect Barack Obama complained about after that first meeting with President Bush. Mr. Obama and his wife, Michelle, climbed out of their limousine to be greeted by the president and first lady, Laura Bush. Mr. and Mr. Bush shook hands, and then Mr. Obama added an extra touch of warmth, patting the President’s shoulder.

The two walked down the colonnade to the Oval Office to discuss the handover of power.

Their wives headed off to look at the living quarters, including the bedrooms that the Bush daughters, Barbara and Jenna, had occupied. The talks between Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush were private, but White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said they were expected to discuss the economic crisis, foreign affairs and what it means to be a President.

“It’s a small club,” she said. But the talks were less significant than the picture that will go round the world of Mr. Obama in the White House as the first African-American President-elect. Mr. Obama knows the White House, completed in 1800, was built by slaves and staffed by them until 1850.

Like other African-Americans, he can list all the slights and snubs in the years that followed.

The public row that followed in 1901 when the African-American leader, Booker T. Washington, was invited to a private dinner at the White House by President Theodore Roosevelt, an unsavoury incident that Mr. Obama’s Republican rival, John McCain, referred to in a gracious concession speech last week. And there was the lack of invitations to African-Americans to social occasions until after the World War-II.

Mr. Obama has spoken of the potency of the image of his daughters, Malia and Sasha, careering round the White House or playing on the lawn. Against that background, the tensions between Mr. Obama and Mr. Bush are insignificant. Mr. Obama, as a Democrat opposed to the Iraq war, Guantanamo and a host of other Bush policies, was never going to be a soul-mate of the President’s.

And he relayed that in his book, “Audacity of Hope,” telling how awkward his first meeting with Mr. Bush had been.

Ms. Perino insisted the relationship between the two was now good.

“President Bush has been involved in politics since the mid-60s, when he watched his father run for Congress. Their whole political life has been about a rough and tumble campaign,” she said, adding: “This President was not involved in the [2008] campaign, we studiously stayed out of it, even when it was very hard for us sometimes to let attacks go unanswered.”

She did not specify whether the attacks that Mr. Bush found hard to leave unanswered had been from Mr. Obama or from Mr. McCain.

Mr. Bush’s diary is becoming lighter and lighter. If not for the economic crisis in mid-September, he would have been almost invisible. Unlike previous Presidents who have sought to remain in the public office, he appears to be heading for retirement at his Texas ranch. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008

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