When Obama Meets Bush 41: A Bipartisan Boost?

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Mark Wilson / Getty

Former President George H.W. Bush and U.S. President Barack Obama

There is a long tradition of sitting Presidents courting, relying on and even plotting with their predecessors, and the latest chapter is set to unfold Friday afternoon when former President George Herbert Walker Bush, accompanied by former Secretary of State James Baker, greets Barack Obama as he steps off a Marine Corps helicopter in College Station, Texas.

At Bush's invitation, the 44th Commander in Chief is paying a long-planned visit to the home of Bush's presidential library to mark the 20th anniversary of the voluntarism initiative begun by the former President in 1989.

After being introduced by Bush, Obama will speak on community service before 2,500 people in Rudder Auditorium on the campus of Texas A&M University. Obama is expected to pay tribute to Bush's Points of Light Initiative, a community-service and charitable works program he launched in the early days of his presidency in 1989. Joining the two men on stage will be Robert Gates, the Secretary of Defense and former president of the university, who has worked for both Presidents.

The meeting has been in the works for months, almost since the earliest days of the Obama Administration, and postponed at least once. It is just the most recent display of bipartisan goodwill between current and past holders of the highest office in the land. These alliances often span vast differences in both ideology and age: Richard Nixon paid a secret visit to Bill Clinton, 33 years his junior, to discuss Russia policy in 1993; Herbert Hoover met with John F. Kennedy, 38 years his junior, before he was inaugurated in 1960. Bush, at 85, is 37 years older than Obama, who is 48.

The two men met for the first time in January when Bush's son, George W. Bush, invited all the former Presidents, as well as Obama, to the White House. Earlier this year, the White House issued a proclamation marking the 20th anniversary of another Bush initiative, the Americans with Disabilities Act — a gesture that did not go unnoticed in Bush country.

The political benefits of this stop are easy to spot — though it would be easy to overestimate them too. It does not hurt Obama to be seen in the Lone Star state with Bush and Baker, two of the state's favorite sons, not to mention Gates, a Kansan who in College Station is something of an iconic figure. And as Republican criticism of his busy legislative program has increased, Obama may benefit from a joint appearance with a popular former Republican President elsewhere in the country.

But it is more likely that Obama, as he considers his options in Afghanistan, would benefit most from any private conversation he can work in on the subject with Bush, who was considered a foreign policy maestro, not to mention Baker, who along with Brent Scowcroft (and Gates), helped Bush chart a solid and centrist foreign policy from 1989 to 1993.

Longtime Bush observers were not surprised that the former President initiated Friday's visit. Bush is the informal leader of the four living ex-Presidents (Carter, Bush, Clinton and Bush) in part because, as President, he paid uncommon attention and courtesy to the four living Presidents who preceded him in office. Bush already enjoys a good relationship with Clinton. If Bush is not the most active former President, he is certainly the gamest: he jumped out of an airplane to mark his 85th birthday last summer, as he said recently, "to remind people that getting older doesn't mean you have to slow down."