Obama, Clinton hide their tensions behind smiles
Two presidents travel together to honor JFK
Whatever tension exists between President Obama and former President Bill Clinton — and by all accounts, there’s plenty — it wasn’t on full display Wednesday when the two men came together for a White House ceremony and a tribute to the late President John F. Kennedy.
Mr. Obama lavished praise on Mr. Clinton as he presented him with the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The 42nd president and former Arkansas governor was one of 16 Americans who received the medal during an event in the White House.
Perhaps in an attempt to downplay bad blood, Mr. Obama saved his glowing remarks about Mr. Clinton for last.
Mr. Obama praised Mr. Clinton for his work in elected office and for his post-presidential efforts with the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative. He also thanked his Democratic predecessor for his counsel and “advice on and off the golf course.”
“As president, he proved that with the right choices, you could grow the economy, lift people out of poverty, we could shrink our deficits and still invest in our families, our health, our schools, science, technology. In other words, we can go further when we look out for each other,” Mr. Obama said, at times looking directly at Mr. Clinton as he spoke.
“As we’ve all seen, as president, he was just getting started,” Mr. Obama said. “He doesn’t stop. He’s helped lead relief efforts after the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake. His foundation and global initiative have helped to save or improve the lives of literally hundreds of millions of people. … Thank you so much, President Clinton.”
Later in the day, the two men and their wives — first lady Michelle Obama and Mr. Obama’s 2008 political rival and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton — took part in a somber wreath-laying tribute to Kennedy at Arlington National Cemetery. Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, and Mr. Obama and Mr. Clinton, neither of whom spoke at the Arlington service, spent a few minutes visiting with members of the Kennedy family at the grave site.
Although their friction wasn’t apparent Wednesday, there still were signs of a frosty relationship.
The Obamas and the Clintons traveled from the White House to Arlington in the same limousine but left the ceremony in different cars.
Later on Wednesday, some political pundits noted that Mr. Clinton stood stone-faced just before Mr. Obama presented him with his medal, even as the sitting president smiled at Mr. Clinton.
Mr. Clinton did smile and laugh as he was given the medal.
The two men’s often-rocky relationship can be traced to the 2008 presidential campaign, where Mr. Obama bested Mrs. Clinton in the Democratic Party primary. Since then, Mr. Clinton often has seemingly criticized Mr. Obama, or praised his political opponents, at particularly inopportune times.
In addition to Mr. Clinton, Medal of Freedom recipients Wednesday included Sally Ride, the first American woman in space; media mogul Oprah Winfrey; country music icon Loretta Lynn; former Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican; feminist and journalist Gloria Steinem; legendary college basketball coach Dean Smith; and former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.
Later Wednesday, Mr. Obama spoke at a dinner for Medal of Freedom honorees at the Smithsonian Institution and praised the late President John F. Kennedy, saying he and his family gave to the nation “a legacy of service” that reminded people “that the power to change this country is ours.”
Mr. Obama said Kennedy created the award shortly before his death to emphasize that the triumph of America is the “culmination of our common endeavors.”
“There’s no one way to contribute to the success of America,” Mr. Obama said. “Our triumph is found not simply in the exertion of our power.”
President Obama presents the Medal of Freedom to former President Bill Clinton during a White House ceremony before visiting the grave site of the man who created the honor, John F. Kennedy. Mr. Clinton stood stone-faced as Mr. Obama smiled and heaped praise on him.