Galas in Washington, D.C., like the one held Monday night to honor the work of George H.W. Bush, are unmistakable. Politicians and pop stars alternate on the red carpet; taffeta gowns mix with power suits, bling follows American flag pins. But Monday's event, put on by Points of Light Institute at the Kennedy Center, had an even more distinctive offering: all the living former Presidents of the United States.
They gathered to celebrate No. 41's commitment to volunteerism and to watch musical powerhouses, ranging from R&B crooner Cee Lo Green to country legend Garth Brooks, do the same. "We're all important. We're all volunteers," Brooks told TIME as he walked down the red carpet.
Guests filled the lavish Kennedy Center Opera House as the presenters, including an Army major sergeant brought in to sing the national anthem, readied themselves backstage. The press was briefly ushered to the wings to photograph the Presidents all together, a spectacle the organizers called "The Rushmore." And as the lights dimmed and the room hushed, the Commanders in Chief filed in.
First came Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush followed to spirited applause. Last came the night's honoree, Bush the elder, confined to a wheelchair by his Parkinsonism, a vascular disease similar to Parkinson's. The cheering was poignant as he rolled down the aisle, but as the chair arrived at the rows where the Bush family sat, H.W. made a motion to stand and, amidst a second eruption of cheers, he shuffled to the seat between his wife Barbara and the man she calls her "black sheep son": Mr. Clinton. As the major sergeant warbled through the twilight and ramparts, the junior ex-President kept his hand firmly pressed on his predecessor's back.
From the outset of Kid Rock's opening number, "Born Free," the show was a welloiled machine. Practiced producers George Stevens, Jr. and Michael Stevens, who have enough Emmys between them to fill a presidential cabinet room, kept the speeches shortwinded. And the presenters offered something for every demographic. Teenage iCarly star Miranda Cosgrove made a volunteerism appeal to America's youth while Jimmy Carter played to the senior citizen seats. Sam Moore, a R&B veteran of presidential inaugurations, did a mashup with Cee Lo Green, and their rendition of "Soul Man" had George W. Bush doing some zesty headbobbing. In turn, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood and Mavis Staples, among others, all took the stage.
The jamboree hit a somber note when George W. Bush took the microphone. Rather than give a speech, he quickly turned the proceedings over to Japanese ambassador Ichiro Fujisaki, who had been invited to say a few words about how his country was coping with the aftermath of the tsunami. Praising American volunteers, he said, "We will never, never forget it."
As the program approached an end, Clinton took the stage and explained how each President must find his way to make life after the presidency meaningful. "All you really want to do is make sure that by the time you leave this earth, things are a little better off than they were when you showed up," he said. "First you're lost for about two months because nobody plays a song when you walk in the room," he said to much laughter. But then "you have to decide what to do."
Perhaps with the exception of skydiving, which he is known to do on certain milestone birthdays, volunteerism has been the most public aspect of Bush Sr.'s postpresidency. The organization putting on Monday's event took its name from the phrase "a thousand points of light," words Bush used during his 1988 presidential campaign to describe the importance of service in America.
Clinton, whom Neil Bush has come to describe as "a brother from another mother," explained how that dedication to service transformed his relationship with Bush 41 and the bond formed between them while volunteering together all over the world. "I literally came to love him, and I realized all over again how much energy we waste fighting with each other over things that don't matter," Clinton said. "He can do no wrong in my eyes... even though he, every five years, makes me look like a wimp by continuing to jump out of a plane."