WASHINGTON - The Bushes were back in the White House on Thursday, cracking wise with U.S. President Barack Obama as a portrait of the 43rd president was unveiled in a friendly ceremony void of politics but rife with laughs.
Apparently not nursing any hard feelings that Obama has been maligning his record for the past four years, a cheerful George W. Bush made a rare public appearance to praise his hosts, his wife, Laura, and his new portrait.
"Thank you so much for inviting our rowdy friends to my hanging," Bush told the president and first lady Michelle Obama in the ornate East Room after a private lunch that included 14 members of his family, including his parents and children.
To an eruption of raucous laughter, he added: "I am also pleased, Mr. President, that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask: 'What would George do?'"
The event was heavily attended by members of Bush's White House team, including strategist Karl Rove, onetime homeland security chief Tom Ridge and former secretary of state Colin Powell.
They were among those laughing hardest when Bush was particularly self-deprecating.
Obama too got some big laughs.
"George, I will always remember the gathering you hosted for all the living former presidents before I took office, your kind words of encouragement ... plus, you also left me a really good TV sports package," he said. "I use it."
Even the famously genteel Laura Bush -- described by her husband as "the greatest first lady ever" before apologizing to his mother, also a former first lady -- got into the act.
Her portrait was also unveiled on Thursday. Like her husband's, it was painted by artist John Howard Sanden.
"It was really gracious of you to invite us back to the White House to hang a few family pictures," Laura Bush told the Obamas. "And I'm sure you know nothing makes a house a home like having portraits of its former occupants staring down at you from the walls."
But she also sounded a serious, sentimental tone that left her twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, fighting back tears.
"I hope others will see in this portrait what I see: a woman who was honoured and humbled to live in the White House during a period of great challenge, and who will never forget the countless American faces who make up the true portrait of that time," she said.
By and large, remarks by Laura Bush and Michelle Obama reflected the well-documented affection between the two women. …