A former top aide to George W. Bush once explained the Republican’s intriguing relationship with President Obama in the bond between those who work in the Oval Office.
It’s not just the vast power of the presidency and the burden of responsibility that comes with it, the aide told Yahoo News. It’s that only a former commander in chief can fully understand the frustration that comes from experiencing the limits of that power, the inability to overcome problems or opposition at home or abroad.
Some of those limits were on display when Obama and Bush shared the stage Tuesday at an emotional memorial for five Dallas police officers slain by a black Army veteran. Bush was there to mourn his home city’s fallen, but the rare joint appearance symbolically suggested that the weight of so many mass shootings under Obama had increased to the point that a second set of presidential shoulders was needed to help carry the load.
“I have spoken at too many memorials during the course of this presidency. I’ve hugged too many families who have lost a loved one to senseless violence,” Obama said in Dallas, with evident frustration.
The anonymous Bush aide, who spoke to Yahoo News on condition that he not be named or quoted, was not referring specifically to gun violence or to America’s sometimes stammering debate about race relations.
But those comments spoke to the complicated relationship between Obama, who powered his two history-making runs for the White House with relentless assaults on his predecessor, and Bush. Behind the scenes, the Democrat has found his erstwhile target to be a likable member of the world’s most exclusive support group, according to current and former aides to both men.
Obama and Bush had come together a few times before — on somber occasions like the aftermath of the January 2010 earthquake that devastated Haiti and solemn events like the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and the May 2015 commemoration of the civil rights march at Selma, Ala. They’ve also swapped jokes at more casual ceremonies like the unveiling of the former president’s official portrait at the White House.
On that occasion, Obama first thanked Bush for his words of encouragement when he took office, then drew laughter when he added: “You also left me a really good TV sports package. I use it.”
Bush got his own chuckles when he told Obama: “When you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask, ‘What would George do?’’’
Shared experiences of being cloistered at 1600 Pennsylvania — which successive presidents have half-jokingly described as the crown jewel of the federal prison system — or battling Congress and enduring the news media have helped the fraternity of former presidents to forge a special bond.
“We’ve been called ‘the world’s most exclusive club,’ and we do have a pretty nice clubhouse. But the truth is, our club is more like a support group,” Obama said at the April 2013 dedication of Bush’s presidential library. Whoever sits in the Oval Office feels kinship to “leaders from both parties who have taken on the momentous challenges and felt the enormous weight of a nation on their shoulders.”
Obama, who portrayed Bush in 2008 as misleading the country into the Iraq War and blundering into the Great Recession, also had warm words specifically for the former president.
“To know the man is to like the man, because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man,” Obama said.
The cerebral Obama, a former Harvard law professor, and his more folksy Yale-educated predecessor did not consult on their remarks at Tuesday’s memorial service, White House officials told Yahoo News.
With chief White House speechwriter Cody Keenan away on his honeymoon, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes started work on Obama’s speech during his abbreviated trip to Europe. The president and his aide crafted the speech with input from former White House staffer Joshua DuBois, who formerly ran the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships and has frequently contributed quotes from Scripture and other inspirational texts following similar past tragedies.
“There has become a certain horrible routine to these things,” a senior Obama aide told Yahoo News.
The joint presidential appearance, which was not routine, wasn’t the work of the White House, several officials said, though Obama was pleased that the mayor of Dallas invited Bush to speak.
“Their paths don’t cross often, but the president certainly did enjoy the opportunity that he had to catch up with President Bush a little bit,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said on Wednesday. “Despite their well-chronicled political differences, there’s a genuine affection that the two men have for one another.”
To hear aides on both sides tell it, the relationship between the two leaders started to thaw almost immediately after the 2008 election. Bush directed his aides to ensure a smooth transition into power for Team Obama. Aides to the incoming president recall being surprised at how un-ideological the short-timers were, how helpful they were with everything from navigating the warren of offices in the West Wing and the nearby Old Executive Office Buildings to the idiosyncracies of the White House mess, or guiding them through the refurbished Situation Room.
“He couldn’t have been nicer to my team and family when we made the transition in, and I always had a good friendly relationship with him,” Obama told NBC’s “Today” show in April 2013.
Over the past seven years, the two presidents have sometimes privately commiserated over having to deal with Congress and the news media. They have bonded over the struggles inherent in raising two daughters in the White House. Obama has been grateful that Bush stuck to his plan to stay out of the political spotlight after leaving office in January 2009.
“The president has to make the choices he thinks are important. I’m not going to second-guess our president,” Bush said on the sidelines of an October 2014 golf tournament for the Wounded Warriors charity.
“I understand how tough the job is. To have a former president bloviating and second-guessing is, I don’t think, good for the presidency or the country,” he went on to say. (Well, publicly, anyway. In private, things are apparently a little different.)
It’s not that they are friends, exactly.
“I would describe their relationship as polite, cordial,” an official close to Bush told Yahoo News on Tuesday, asking not to be named. “They understand the burdens of the job, and so respect each other, but are not close.“
They don’t talk regularly. Obama telephoned Bush immediately after the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden. The Republican later turned down an invitation to come to an event marking the moment at Ground Zero in New York City.
Bush aides say he tends not to take political criticisms personally as long as they are direct (the former president famously broke with former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder for telling him he would not campaign for reelection with attacks on Bush, then turning around and breaking his word). Advisers on both sides told Yahoo News that the tensest stretch between Obama and Bush came when the sitting president moved to make public the legal memos his predecessor’s administration used to defend interrogation practices that met international definitions of torture.
But whatever animosity there was, it does not appear to have lingered long.
In March 2015, alone among top national Republicans, Bush joined Obama to commemorate the civil rights march on Selma, Ala.
“GWB and Mrs. Bush could not have been warmer or more generous, and they all got along really well,” a top Obama aide told Yahoo News.
Bush, who did not speak at the event, wrote in his memoirs that the lowest moment of his presidency had been when he faced accusations of not caring about black people in the aftermath of the botched government response to Hurricane Katrina.
Obama has also praised Bush’s post-9/11 efforts to convince Americans not to demonize followers of Islam, a campaign that has taken on new meaning in 2016 with Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration.
With Obama’s presidency now in twilight, the pitched battle to succeed him under way and political partisanship at a fever pitch, the soothing words he spoke at Bush’s portrait unveiling also take on a new hue.
“In this job, no decision that reaches your desk is easy. No choice you make is without costs. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to make everybody happy,” Obama said.
“And that’s why, from time to time, those of us who have had the privilege to hold this office find ourselves turning to the only people on Earth who know the feeling. We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences. We all love this country. We all want America to succeed. We all believe that when it comes to moving this country forward, we have an obligation to pull together.”