WASHINGTON — Something unusual happened on former President George H.W. Bush's return to the White House Monday — Republicans and Democrats actually were genuinely nice to each other.
It's not something Washington sees much of these days, with senators locked in a bitter dispute over the confirmation process and the White House and Congress unable to agree on hardly any legislation. But in the midst of all the fighting, President Barack Obama took time to honor a volunteer service award Bush created 24 years ago.
The ceremony in the East Room marked the awarding of the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award, which Bush started after delivering a 1989 inaugural address that described Americans serving each other as "a thousand points of light."
"We are surely a kinder and gentler nation because of you," Obama told Bush, sparking a sustained round of applause from the packed room and tears from daughter Dorothy Bush Koch.
The Bush family, which fell out of public favor in the waning days of George W. Bush's wartime presidency, has recently been re-emerging into the political spotlight that has grown more favorable now that their dynasty is out of office. The younger former President Bush has been traveling Africa to work on health projects and promoting immigration reform, and his poll numbers are at a post-presidential high. His brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, has written a book on immigration reform and is keeping the door open to a presidential run in 2016. George P. Bush, Jeb's oldest son, is running for statewide office in Texas.
The 89-year-old George H.W. Bush, who just a few years ago parachuted out of an airplane, is no longer able to stand and spoke less than a minute at the White House Monday. But the 41st president still showed his spark with the colorful socks that are becoming his trademark and the barbs he traded with his son, Neil, chairman of the Points of Light organization. Bush simply thanked the Obamas for their hospitality and then turned the floor to Neil by telling him, "Keep it short."
"He may not be parachuting any more, but he's taken up a new hobby and that is he's trying to be a style setter," Neil teased, pointing out his father's red-and-white striped socks. "GQ man, we're calling him, instead of 41."
The two presidents and their wives earlier had a private lunch of grilled Gulf shrimp with grits and Wagyu beef, with angel food cake for dessert. They were joined for the meal in the Red Room by other members of the Bush family — Bush Koch, Neil and his wife, Maria and daughter-in-law Margaret Bush — but former President George W. Bush did not attend.
Later, Obama and Bush appeared before an East Room crowd that included several Daily Point of Light award winners and Bush advisers such as former Transportation Secretary Andrew Card and former White House counsel C. Boyden Gray. Obama handed out the 5,000th Point of Light Award to Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, retired farm owners from Union, Iowa. In 2004, they created Outreach, a nonprofit organization that has delivered more than 232 million meals to children suffering from hunger in the United States and east Africa.
Obama also has made volunteerism a theme of his presidency. In 2009, he signed legislation to more than triple the size of the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 volunteers to 250,000 by 2017. On Monday, he announced creation of a federal task force to come up with new ways for the public and private sectors to collaborate to support national service as a means of tackling national priorities.
He credited Bush with expanding a commitment to service in America and inspiring him personally.
"Your love of service has kindled a similar love in the hearts of millions here at home and around the world. And, frankly, just the fact that you're such a gentleman and such a good and kind person I think helps to reinforce that spirit of service," Obama said.
Wrapping up the bipartisan spirit of the ceremony was Points of Light CEO Michelle Nunn, a possible Democratic Senate candidate from Georgia and the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga. She said when it comes to helping fellow Americans, "we don't ask about political party or faith or income ... we get together, and we get busy."
"The award is an antidote to the dispiriting cynicism that too often pervades our news and our discourse. It reminds us that people care and that hope is the true story of America," Nunn said.