There will be a bit of history in Texas today when President Obama joins the four living ex-presidents at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. After all, it isn't often that so many presidents are together. The picture of Bush flanked by Presidents Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush, and Jimmy Carter will likely be a hot item on eBay by the end of the week.
But history suggests that the key moments may not be reflected in that photograph. In this most exclusive club, where former rivals interact and decades-old slights can loom large, small courtesies often have big consequences and lead to surprising friendships.
There is, by any normal standard, no reason for these men to like each other. All have clashed in the past. Obama defeated Clinton's wife; Clinton defeated the elder Bush; Bush was on the ticket that defeated Carter; and the younger Bush defeated Clinton's vice president.
But, amazingly, friendships have emerged among old rivals, forged by intimate knowledge of the unique challenges of the presidency and fostered by private moments at the very few occasions they come together.
Usually, it is funerals and presidential-library dedications that draw the ex-presidents. When Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981, President Ronald Reagan dispatched former presidents Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Carter to the funeral. When they met at the White House beforehand, it was the first time in a century that four presidents had been together. Then, in 1991, when five presidents — Bush, Reagan, Carter, Ford, and Nixon — gathered for the dedication of the Reagan Presidential Library, it was the first time since 1862 that five presidents had been alive at one time and the first time that many had assembled.