Take five: Day (all) the presidents did lunch




There is, as everyone knows, an art to assembling the perfect combination of guests for a dinner party. You don't want to invite people who fiercely disagree with each other on almost everything; it's nice to have a mix of men and women; and while one or two big egos are fine, it's best if not everyone present likes being the centre of attention.

By those standards, the historic lunch gathering at the White House yesterday, attended by all four living presidents, and the man about to assume the office, might have seemed doomed to descend into awkwardness.

But almost everybody in the United States right now likes Barack Obama: polls give him an approval rating above 80%, unheard of for a president-elect. And yesterday that seemed to include both Bushes along with, perhaps no less notably, Bill Clinton.

Before repairing to the small private dining room, reached via a passageway from the Oval Office, the five men posed shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the president's desk: Obama was flanked by a George Bush on either side, with a beaming Clinton and Jimmy Carter (his expression characteristically unreadable) mere inches away.

It was a photo opportunity that delivered more frisson than most, making the transition of power in Washington suddenly vivid, as an older generation met a younger one.

And, of course, as four white men welcomed a black man to the most exclusive club in America.

The economy being what it is, it was in none of their interests to have the media report they had dined on champagne, caviar and foie gras, and so aides were at pains to point out that the five ordered from the White House Mess, the navy-run staff restaurant that is nevertheless, to be candid, one or two notches up from the average office canteen. The menu is described as "traditional American", and during the outgoing president's time in office has featured the White House Signature Steak, the West Wing Burger, spaghetti marinara, shrimp prepared with herbs and mustard, and a dish called Chocolate Freedom blending patriotism and calorific overload in a single dessert.

The faintest trace of impatience could be discerned on the faces of the Bushes as Obama dominated the photo opportunity before the meal, telling reporters he planned to learn about "the pressures and possibilities of this office" from his assembled predecessors. "For me to have the opportunity to get good advice and good counsel and fellowship with these individuals is extraordinary."

Nobody, certainly not members of the press, accompanied the five into the dining room. But earlier Bush's spokeswoman, Dana Perino, had speculated that their conversation might include "raising children in the White House, raising children when you're a public figure, and how to protect them".

Still, it seemed possible that less exclusively personal matters might intrude. For all the sense of momentous change, some things remain depressingly the same: the last time all living presidents assembled at the White House, it was also against a backdrop of tumult in the Middle East. In 1981, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Carter and Ronald Reagan gathered to discuss policy for the region, prior to leaving for the funeral of the assassinated Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.

The outgoing and incoming heads of state will, of course, meet once more soon, for Obama's swearing-in and the old president's departure: Obama is expected to escort George and Laura Bush through a passageway at the Capitol building to a waiting helicopter.

Yesterday's lunch had been Obama's suggestion, but served Bush's purposes too, enabling him to portray himself as above partisan politics: a unifier, just like Obama. Decorum, presumably, prevented Obama from mentioning a rather obvious difference between the two: Bush's approval rating at this moment stands at an almost as historically unprecedented 27%.

aide – adiutant, pomocnik

assembled – zebrany

assembling – zgromadzenie, zebranie

assume – obejmować (urząd)

awkwardness – niezręczność, skrępowanie

backdrop – kulisy

candid – otwarty, szczery

counsel – rada

decorum – formy towarzyskie, dobre maniery

descend – schodzić, zapanować

discern – spostrzegać, zauważać

doomed to – skazany na

flanked – otoczony po bokach

frisson – szmer

intrude – niepokoić, wdzierać się

mere – tylko, jedynie

momentous – doniosły, ważny

partisan – stronnik, zwolennik

predecessor – poprzednik

presumably – prawdopodobnie, przypuszczalnie

prior to – przed (czymś)

repair – udawać się do

swearing-in – zaprzysiężenie

tumult – wrzawa, tumult, niepokój

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