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Obama hails George H.W. Bush for inspiring nation to volunteer

  • Article by: RICHARD S. DUNHAM
  • Hearst Newspapers
  • July 15, 2013 - 10:30 PM

 

He entered the White House East Room to familiar strains of Hail to the Chief, but George H.W. Bush’s appearance in the historic room where Abigail Adams once hung laundry was different from his hundreds of previous visits.

Accompanied by President Obama, the 89-year-old former president was wheeled to the stage, appearing frail but wearing his trademark grin and his favorite red-and-white striped socks. Surrounded by family, former staffers, lawmakers and two dozen Americans engaged in volunteer activity, the oldest living ex-president was honored one more time by the current occupant for his lifetime of public service and his commitment to volunteer service.

“Mr. President,” the 44th president said to the 41st, “I am one of millions of people who have been inspired by your passion and your commitment. You have helped so many Americans discover that they, too, have something to contribute — that they, too, have the power to make a difference.”

The event, which packed the East Room with about 300 people, commemorated the awarding of the 5,000th “Daily Point of Light” honoring volunteers who have worked on projects in their own communities and in far-flung locales around the world since Bush’s 1989 inauguration as president. Monday’s “points of light” were Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, a retired couple from Union, Iowa, who have distributed 233 million meals to needy people in 16 nations.

The former president spoke quietly as he thanked the current president for the “privilege” of returning to the house where he lived for four years and visited regularly during his son George’s two terms in office.

“It’s like coming home for Barbara and me,” he said during brief remarks.

The celebrity-studded White House audience included such champions of volunteerism as former Houston Rockets star Dikembe Mutombo, who towered over the crowd at 7 feet 2, and technology entrepreneur Steve Case.

The event was an increasingly rare display of bipartisanship in a city now known for its poisonous politics. Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi sat in the front row next to Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch. Former First Lady Barbara Bush chatted with First Lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, the wife of Vice President Joe Biden.

Among the former Bush staffers in the East Room were political adviser Ron Kaufman and White House counsel Boyden Gray, who was making his first visit to the White House since the second President Bush moved out.

“I can’t think of a better excuse to be here,” Gray said.

More than a dozen Bush family members were on hand to fete the patriarch of the political dynasty, including former first children Neil Bush and Doro Bush Koch.

Neil Bush, the chairman of the Points of Light Foundation, leaned over and kissed his father before launching into a tribute to his parents. George and Barbara Bush “have lived incredibly meaningful and adventurous lives,” Neil Bush said.

Speaking from the lectern with the presidential seal and making lefthanded gestures reminiscent of his father and brother, Neil Bush remembered “this most special place” and lauded the Obamas as “true points of light.”

After several minutes of describing the merits of volunteerism and the mission of the Points of Light Foundation, which has become the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service, he shared some advice from his parents: “Mom admonished me in church yesterday — and dad just told me — to keep it short.”

Obama, who shared a lunch with the Bushes in the White House’s Red Room before the ceremony, grew emotional when he described the former president as “such a gentleman and such a good and kind person.”

“So on behalf of us all, let me just say that we are surely a kinder and gentler nation because of you, and we can’t thank you enough,” Obama said.

© 2014 Star Tribune