It was eight years ago this month when three presidents joined at the White House for the official unveiling of George W. Bush's portrait. It was at this same event that Bush told the only joke of his that I ever found amusing.
In the East Room, near a famous portrait of George Washington, the nation's 43rd president reflected on its history, and the role a former first lady played in rescuing it. "When the British burned the White House ... in 1814, Dolley Madison famously saved this portrait of the first George W," Bush said. He then turned his attention to Michelle Obama, pointed to his own portrait, and said, "Now, Michelle, if anything happens, there's your man."
It was at this same event that then-President Barack Obama said, "We may have our differences politically, but the presidency transcends those differences. We all love this country. We all want America to succeed. We all believe that when it comes to moving this country forward, we have an obligation to pull together."
In theory, we should expect to see a similar event at the White House very soon. NBC News reports that those waiting for Donald Trump to honor tradition and graciously welcome his predecessor should lower their expectations.
Republican presidents have done it for Democratic presidents, and vice versa -- even when one of them ascended to the White House by defeating or sharply criticizing the other.... Yet this modern ritual won't be taking place between Obama and President Donald Trump, according to people familiar with the matter. And if Trump wins a second term in November, it could be 2025 before Obama returns to the White House to see his portrait displayed among every U.S. president from George Washington to Bush.
Reflecting on the custom, former White House curator Betty Monkman told the White House Historical Association in 2017, "It's a statement of generosity on [the part of] the current president and first lady. And it's a very warm, lovely moment."
At least, it's supposed to be. Tradition also holds that current presidents shouldn't throw around unhinged conspiracy theories about their predecessor, accusing him of undefined felonies, but these are the times we live in.
I am curious, though, what to expect after Trump leaves office. If, for example, the incumbent president loses this fall, should we expect Joe Biden to welcome his predecessor to the East Room for a celebratory event in May 2024? And what do you suppose Trump would say if he received such an invitation?