WASHINGTON — In a homecoming tinged with nostalgia and an unspoken sense of farewell, President Obama on Monday welcomed his oldest living predecessor, George H.W. Bush, to the White House, where the two men, united in their fervor for volunteer service, presented an award to a retired Iowa couple.
Appearing together in the East Room, Obama and Bush, who is 89, bestowed the 5,000th “Daily Point of Light” award — named after Bush’s signature initiative on volunteer service — to Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, who founded a nonprofit organization that delivers free meals to hungry children in 15 countries.
Paying tribute to Bush for “how bright a light you shine,” Obama recounted how his predecessor began awarding these prizes while still in the White House and has continued to hand them out every day since he left the presidency in 1993.
“When you do a parachute jump at the age of 85,” Obama said, gesturing to a smiling Bush, in a wheelchair, “this is somebody who is not going to slow down anytime soon.”
Bush, who was hospitalized in intensive care with a high fever over the holidays this winter, appeared frail but alert and in good spirits. He wore a pair of jaunty, mismatched red-and-white striped socks, which his son Neil said reflected the determination of his father, who no longer jumps out of planes, to become a style icon instead.
Bush spoke briefly, his voice familiar and steady, to thank the president and Michelle Obama for their hospitality. After handing the microphone to Neil Bush, who chairs the “Points of Light” organization, he admonished his son to “keep it short.”
In addition to his son, Bush was joined by his wife, Barbara Bush, other members of his family, though not former president George W. Bush. Before the ceremony, the Obamas hosted the Bushes for lunch in the Red Room of the White House.
It has been a season of conciliation for the Bush family and Obama, who ran for the White House on a blunt critique of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. During his recent trip to Africa, Obama crossed paths with the younger Bush, paying tribute to him for his AIDS initiative, which Obama described as one of his “crowning achievements.”
“Because of the commitment of the Bush administration and the American people,” Obama said before their meeting in Tanzania, “millions of people’s lives have been saved.”
Bush returned the favor, speaking out in favor of an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, which he failed to push through Congress in 2007 and which is now Obama’s major legislative goal.
“I think it’s very important to fix a broken system, to treat people with respect. And have confidence in our capacity to assimilate people,” Bush said recently on the ABC program “This Week.”
At the ceremony, Obama, who started his career as a community organizer, said he had been inspired by the elder Bush’s example. Bush, he noted, passed a federal law on volunteer service in 1990 that laid the groundwork for AmeriCorps and other organizations. But it is the phrase “Points of Lights” with which he is indelibly associated.
The words, which Bush first used in his acceptance speech for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, quickly worked their way into popular culture.