Past, present and future presidents meet

WASHINGTON — For the first time in a generation, the former and current U.S. presidents gathered for a historic meeting Wednesday at the White House to reminisce and offer some advice to the building’s future occupant, President-elect Barack Obama.

President George W. Bush welcomed Obama, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and his father, George H.W. Bush, in the Oval Office, before proceeding to a private hourlong lunch. “I want to thank the president-elect for joining the ex-presidents for lunch,” Bush said.

“One message that I have and I think we all share is that we want you to succeed,” Bush said. “Whether we’re Democrat or Republican, we all care deeply about this country. … All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual.”

Obama thanked Bush for hosting the “extraordinary gathering.”

“All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office,” Obama said. “For me to have the opportunity to get the advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary, and I’m very grateful.”

The meeting originated with a suggestion from Obama during his first private meeting with Bush in November, and it marks the first such White House meeting since October 1981, when then-President Ronald Reagan had cocktails with former presidents Carter, Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon prior to a state funeral for slain Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

Wednesday’s gathering brings together a disparate group of strong political rivals, with the Republican Bushes outnumbered by the three Democrats.

Obama met one-on-one with Bush for about a half-hour prior to joining the ex-presidents for lunch, officials said.

The meal was being held behind closed doors without staff in the Private Dining Room, officials said. White House officials surmised that conversation topics would likely vary from the substantive to the trivial.

“Although they may disagree on some policy prescriptions in order to solve problems in America, they’re obviously all rooting for the same team,” White House press secretary Dana Perino said. “And they will have a chance today to have a rare opportunity of being together in one room to share ideas and viewpoints, war stories and experiences here at the White House.”

Perino added: “I’m sure they’ll also have a chance to talk about experiences and memories that they have in the White House, both on the personal side such as raising a family in the public eye and raising a family in the White House, and also what it’s like to be in the post-presidency, as President Bush is about to experience in about 12 days.”

Bush leaves office Jan. 20, when Obama will be sworn into office. The White House announced Wednesday that Bush will fly back that day for a rally in Midland, Texas. He and first lady Laura Bush will then spend that night at the family’s Prairie Chapel Ranch in Crawford, Texas, near Waco, which has been a regular getaway for Bush throughout his presidency. The Bushes plan to live primarily at a new house the couple recently purchased in Dallas.

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