/ 7 January 2009

Bush, Obama to lunch with former US presidents

President George Bush will talk briefly in private with his successor Barack Obama on Wednesday before a rare White House lunch with all living former US presidents.

The meeting of past and present US leaders is the first such event since 1981 and marks a ”historic moment”, White House spokesperson Dana Perino said, amid one of the most delicate transitions in recent memory.

Those around the table will include Democrat Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), Bush’s father Republican George HW Bush (1989-1993) and Democrat Bill Clinton (1993-2001).

Prior to the lunch, the 43rd and 44th presidents will have about a half-hour to meet one-on-one in the Oval Office, with 13 days remaining before Obama is inaugurated to the presidency.

Obama, who will be sworn in as the nation’s first African-American president on January 20, inherits two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a grave economic crisis, and a surge in Middle East violence.

”Tomorrow I’m sure they’ll talk a little bit about issues,” Perino said, without elaborating.

It was not immediately clear if the former presidents would discuss escalation in the Middle East conflict, with which all have considerable personal experience.

Democrat Carter’s administration in 1978 helped bring off the Camp David peace accords. His Atlanta-based Carter Centre has said in a statement that: ”The government of Israel must cease actions that endanger the civilian population of densely-populated Gaza, and the de facto authorities of Gaza must halt rocket attacks.”

So far, Bush and Obama have spoken regularly, Perino said.

”The president and the president-elect shared a phone call on New Year’s Day. They have had periodic calls,” she said.

”So they’ve had a chance to talk about issues. Those are private conversations.”

Obama has declined to comment on Israel’s military assault on Gaza until he takes office, other than expressing concern, but all the presidents who will be around the table are aware of the gravity of the situation as a top US ally in the Middle East battles Hamas militants while civilians are caught in the crossfire.

”All of us would love to be flies on the wall and listening to that conversation. But these are leaders who only understand what it’s like to be in each other’s shoes. And none of us can put ourselves in their shoes,” Perino said.

Obama receives the same briefings as Bush each morning, and Bush’s aides have said they shared emergency contingency plans with Obama’s team ahead of the handover.

Now, with the Obama family installed at the Hay-Adams hotel within view of the White House in downtown Washington, Perino said she expected some of the conversation would involve family life.

”I’m sure they’ll talk a little bit about raising children in the White House, raising children when you’re a public figure, and how to protect them.”

Since winning the election on November 4, Obama has been to the White House once before, on November 10, when he went there for talks with Bush.

The outgoing administration said the pair discussed international and domestic issues, and Bush reportedly showed Obama the rooms where his daughters Malia (10) and Sasha (7) would stay.

Meanwhile Bush and his wife have already started packing ahead of their departure, Perino said.

”The president’s style is always to be one that’s a little bit prepared early, and he and Mrs. Bush have been working to box things up,” she said.

”They didn’t come with a lot of things; they didn’t bring a lot of furniture here. So mostly what they have are books, obviously their clothes, and then some of the things that they’ve picked up along the way on their travels.” – AFP