(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
WASHINGTON – Confronting a grim economy and a Middle East on fire, Barack Obama turned Wednesday to perhaps the only people on the planet who understand what he's in for: the four living members of the U.S. presidents' club. In an image bound to go down in history, every living U.S. president came together at the White House on Wednesday to hash over the world's challenges with the president-elect. There they stood, shoulder-to-shoulder in the Oval Office: George H.W. Bush, Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter.
"This is an extraordinary gathering," Obama said, looking plenty at ease in the humbling office that will soon be his.
"All the gentlemen here understand both the pressures and possibilities of this office," Obama said. "And for me to have the opportunity to get advice, good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary. And I'm very grateful to all of them."
Bush, blistered without mercy by Obama during the campaign season, played the role of gracious host.
"All of us who have served in this office understand that the office transcends the individual," Bush said as Obama nodded in thanks. "And we wish you all the very best. And so does the country."
It was a moment of statesmanship that tends to happen when presidents get together, no matter how bitter their previous rivalries. In a photo opportunity that lasted less than two minutes, Carter, Clinton and the senior Bush smiled but said nothing. They deferred to the nation's incoming and outgoing leaders.
Earlier, Bush and Obama met privately in the Oval Office in a chat expected to cover events of the day, mainly the troubled economy and Middle East. The two have shown solidarity since Obama's win in November, with one previous Oval Office sit-down and at least a few phone calls in recent weeks.
All sides were determined to say as little as possible about what was discussed. Presidents — new, old, incoming — like to keep their conversations private.
Without offering any specifics, Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said all the presidents "had helpful advice on managing the office as well as thoughts on the critical issues facing the country right now. The president-elect is anxious to stay in touch with all of them in the coming years."
From the White House, press secretary Dana Perino said the discussion was "wide-ranging" but declined to comment further. Before the gathering, she had said she could not imagine the leaders would meet without discussing the Middle East, where conflict rages in Gaza, or the economy, which is sinking.
The White House would not even say what the men ate, allowing only that they ordered off the menu of the White House mess, as Bush does all the time.
Intentionally or not, Bush opened the media moment in a curious way, suggesting that he was already out the door.
"I want to thank the president-elect for joining the ex-presidents for lunch," said Bush, who is in fact still the president until Jan. 20.
"One message that I have, and I think we all share, is that we want you to succeed," Bush added, a beaming Clinton at his other side. "Whether we're Democrat or Republican, we care deeply about this country."
White House aides tried to usher the media out of the Oval Office when Bush stopped speaking. The lighting for the event even went dark.
But sometimes, there is more than one president at a time.
Obama spoke up on his own, the lights went back on, and the cameras kept rolling.
"I just want to thank the president for hosting us," Obama said. When a reporter asked Obama what he could learn from the mistakes of the four presidents surrounding him, he smiled and said he planned to learn from their successes.
The get-together was Obama's idea, and Bush liked it. The lunch lasted about 90 minutes, held in a small dining room off the Oval Office.
Carter, Clinton and the two Bush presidents were last together at the Washington funeral service of President Gerald Ford in 2007. And presidents have gathered at other occasions over the years. But not since October 1981 — 27 years ago — had all of the living presidents gathered at the White House.
Copyright © 2009 The Associated Press.
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