Remarks by President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, Former President George W. Bush and Former First Lady Laura Bush at the Official Portrait Unveiling
1:31 P.M. EDT
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you. (Applause.) Thank you so much. Well, good afternoon, everybody. Thank you, Fred, for that introduction. To President George H. W. Bush and Barbara, to all the members of the Bush family who are here -- it is a great privilege to have you here today. And to President and Mrs. Bush, welcome back to the house that you called home for eight years.
The White House is many things at once. It’s a working office, it’s a living museum, it’s an enduring symbol of our democracy. But at the end of the day, when the visitors go home and the lights go down, a few of us are blessed with the tremendous honor to actually live here.
I think it’s fair to say that every President is acutely aware that we are just temporary residents -- we’re renters here. We’re charged with the upkeep until our lease runs out. But we also leave a piece of ourselves in this place. And today, with the unveiling of the portraits next to me, President and Mrs. Bush will take their place alongside men and women who built this country and those who worked to perfect it.
It’s been said that no one can ever truly understand what it’s like being President until they sit behind that desk and feel the weight and responsibility for the first time. And that is true. After three and a half years in office -- and much more gray hair -- (laughter) -- I have a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the Presidents who came before me, including my immediate predecessor, President Bush.
In this job, no decision that reaches your desk is easy. No choice you make is without costs. No matter how hard you try, you’re not going to make everybody happy. I think that’s something President Bush and I both learned pretty quickly. (Laughter.)
And that’s why, from time to time, those of us who have had the privilege to hold this office find ourselves turning to the only people on Earth who know the feeling. 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. And we all follow the humble, heroic example of our first President, George Washington, who knew that a true test of patriotism is the willingness to freely and graciously pass the reins of power on to somebody else.
That’s certainly been true of President Bush. The months before I took the oath of office were a chaotic time. We knew our economy was in trouble, our fellow Americans were in pain, but we wouldn’t know until later just how breathtaking the financial crisis had been. And still, over those two and a half months -- in the midst of that crisis -- President Bush, his Cabinet, his staff, many of you who are here today, went out of your ways -- George, you went out of your way -- to make sure that the transition to a new administration was as seamless as possible.
President Bush understood that rescuing our economy was not just a Democratic or a Republican issue; it was a American priority. I’ll always be grateful for that.
The same is true for our national security. None of us will ever forget where we were on that terrible September day when our country was attacked. All of us will always remember the image of President Bush standing on that pile of rubble, bullhorn in hand, conveying extraordinary strength and resolve to the American people but also representing the strength and resolve of the American people.
And last year, when we delivered justice to Osama bin Laden, I made it clear that our success was due to many people in many organizations working together over many years -- across two administrations. That’s why my first call once American forces were safely out of harm’s way was to President Bush. Because protecting our country is neither the work of one person, nor the task of one period of time, it’s an ongoing obligation that we all share.
Finally, on a personal note, Michelle and I are grateful to the entire Bush family for their guidance and their example during our own transition.
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. (Laughter.) I use it. (Laughter.)
Laura, you reminded us that the most rewarding thing about living in this house isn’t the title or the power, but the chance to shine a spotlight on the issues that matter most. And the fact that you and George raised two smart, beautiful daughters -- first, as girls visiting their grandparents and then as teenagers preparing to head out into the world -- that obviously gives Michelle and I tremendous hope as we try to do the right thing by our own daughters in this slightly odd atmosphere that we’ve created.
Jenna and Barbara, we will never forget the advice you gave Sasha and Malia as they began their lives in Washington. They told them to surround themselves with loyal friends, never stop doing what they love; to slide down the banisters occasionally -- (laughter) -- to play Sardines on the lawn; to meet new people and try new things; and to try to absorb everything and enjoy all of it. And I can tell you that Malia and Sasha took that advice to heart. It really meant a lot to them.
One of the greatest strengths of our democracy is our ability to peacefully, and routinely, go through transitions of power. It speaks to the fact that we’ve always had leaders who believe in America, and everything it stands for, above all else -- leaders and their families who are willing to devote their lives to the country that they love.
This is what we’ll think about every time we pass these portraits -- just as millions of other visitors will do in the decades, and perhaps even the centuries to come. I want to thank John Howard Sanden, the artist behind these beautiful works, for his efforts. And on behalf of the American people, I want to thank most sincerely President and Mrs. Bush for their extraordinary service to our country.
And now I’d like to invite them on stage to take part in the presentation. (Applause.)
(Portraits are unveiled.)
PRESIDENT BUSH: Thank you, sit down. Sit down. Behave yourselves. (Laughter.) Mr. President, thank you for your warm hospitality. Madam First Lady, thank you so much for inviting our rowdy friends -- (laughter) -- to my hanging. (Laughter.)
Laura and I are honored to be here. Mr. Vice President, thank you for coming. We are overwhelmed by your hospitality. And thank you for feeding the Bush family, all 14 members of us who are here. (Laughter.) I want to thank our girls for coming. I thank Mom and Dad, brother, sister, in-laws, aunts and uncles. I appreciate you taking your time. I know you’re as excited as Laura and me to be able to come back here, and particularly thank the people who helped make this house a home for us for eight years, the White House staff.
I want to thank Fred Ryan and the White House Historical Association and Bill Allman, the White House curator. I am pleased that my portrait brings an interesting symmetry to the White House collection. It now starts and ends with a George W. (Laughter and applause.)
When the British burned the White House, as Fred mentioned, in 1814, Dolley Madison famously saved this portrait of the first George W. (Laughter.) Now, Michelle, if anything happens there's your man. (Laughter and applause.) 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? (Laughter.)
I am honored to be hanging near a man who gave me the greatest gift possible, unconditional love -- and that would be number 41. (Applause.) I want to thank John Howard Sanden for agreeing to use his considerable talents to paint my likeness. You've done a fine job with a challenging subject. (Laughter.)
In the portrait, there's a painting by W.H.D. Koerner called, "A Charge to Keep." It hung in the Oval Office for eight years of my presidency. I asked John to include it, because it reminds me of the wonderful people with whom I was privileged to serve. Whether they served in the Cabinet or on the presidential staff, these men and women -- many of whom are here -- worked hard and served with honor. We had a charge to keep and we kept the charge.
It is my privilege to introduce the greatest First Lady ever -- sorry, Mom. (Laughter.) Would you agree to a tie? (Laughter.) A woman who brought such grace and dignity and love in this house. (Applause.)
MRS. BUSH: Thank you all. (Applause.) Thank you, everybody. Thank you very much. Thank you, darling.
Thank you, President and Mrs. Obama. Thank you for your kindness and your consideration today. It was really gracious of you to invite us back to the White House to hang a few family pictures. (Laughter.) 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. (Laughter.)
This is not the first time I’ve had the opportunity to confront an artistic likeness of myself. A few years ago, just after the 2008 election, a friend sent me something he’d found in the gift shop of the National Constitutional Center in Philadelphia. It was a Laura Bush bobblehead doll. (Laughter.) He said he found it on the clearance shelf. (Laughter.)
But I’m flattered and grateful to know that this particular work has a permanent home. And thanks to the masterful talent of John Howard Sanden, I like it a whole lot better than I do that bobblehead doll. (Laughter.)
Thank you very much, John Howard Sanden -- you’re terrific to work with. And thanks to Elizabeth and your family who have joined you today. Thank you very, very much, John. (Applause.)
And, of course, it’s meaningful to me as a private person to know that these portraits will be on view at the White House, that my portrait will hang just down the hall from my mother-in-law, and that George’s portrait will hang very close to his dad’s. But what’s more meaningful is it’s meaningful to me as a citizen. This was our family’s home for eight years. It was our home, but it wasn’t our house. This house belongs to the people whose portraits will never hang here, the ordinary and not-so-ordinary people whose lives inspired us and whose expectations guided us during the years that we lived here.
In this room are many of the people who stood by us as we faced the tragedy of September 11th, and who worked with us in the years after. Thanks to each and every one of you for your service to our country. (Applause.)
I hope others will see in this portrait what I see: a woman who was honored 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.
Thank you all very much. Thanks so much. And thank you, Michelle, if you want to come up. (Applause.)
MRS. OBAMA: Well, I don't think we have enough tissue to go around. (Laughter.) Jenna and Barbara, they're just a mess. (Laughter.) But I want to thank President and Mrs. Bush for joining us today.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Laura for providing such a wonderful model of strength and grace for me to follow as First Lady. It is an interesting job, and it’s just been amazing to learn from your example not just as a First Lady, but as a mother of two wonderful daughters. You’re on the other side of where we hope to be -- (laughter) -- in a couple of years -- two daughters that sit up straight and cry when they’re -- (laughter) -- and think lovingly about their mom and their dad. (Laughter.) We’re working towards that goal, but you’ve done a terrific job.
And I also want to echo Barack. We couldn’t be more thankful for the warmth and graciousness that both of you showed -- all of you showed -- our family when we moved in three years ago. It is truly, truly a privilege for us to occupy this house. And hopefully, we are setting the same example of warmth and love and hope that you all have provided as well.
The warmth is truly reflected in these portraits, and I promise you -- (laughter) -- I promise, I’m going straight for -- (laughter) -- and I’m sure it will be closer right down the stairs, and I’ll get right to it.
So I am thrilled for all of the White House visitors who will soon have the chance to enjoy them as well. And I’m thrilled for both of you as you join these incredible Americans whose portraits are already displayed here at the White House.
So congratulations again. Congratulations on the work that you have done, the example that you have provided to this country, and what it means to be an American family. We are so happy and proud and honored to be a part.
And with that, it is my pleasure to invite you all to join us for a reception right outside in the State Room. Now it’s time to eat. (Laughter.) Thank you all so much. (Applause.)
1:50 P.M. EDT