President Barack Obama welcomed President George H.W. Bush to the White House on Monday in a salute to public service and to the drive for volunteerism that the 41st president inspired with his "thousand points of light" initiative more than two decades ago.
"We are surely a kinder and gentler nation because of you," Obama told the elder Bush, who sat in a room filled with his friends and former aides.
The first President Bush — "41," he often calls himself — came to attend a ceremony Obama was holding to recognize the 5,000th Daily Point of Light Award. The award's name comes from the description in his 1989 inaugural address of Americans serving each other as "a thousand points of light."
Thanks to Bush, Obama said, "volunteerism has gone from something that some people do some of the time to something that lots of people do as a regular part of their lives."
Bush responded briefly, thanking the Obamas for their "wonderful hospitality," and leaving his son Neil Bush to offer more extended remarks.
In addition to Neil Bush, the former president was joined by his wife, Barbara, the former first lady; and Michelle Nunn, CEO of the Points of Light organization and a possible Democratic Senate candidate from Georgia. She's the daughter of former Sen. Sam Nunn, D-Ga.
President George W. Bush, the 41st president's son, did not attend.
Obama and first lady Michelle Obama and the Bushes had lunch in the Red Room before the ceremony.
Obama announced creation of a federal task force to come up with new ways for the public and private sectors to collaborate to support national service as a means of tackling national priorities.
In the past year, the Corporation for National and Community Service, sponsor of the AmeriCorps national service program, launched partnerships with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Education Department. The 1,600-member FEMA Corps has the sole mission of responding to disasters. School Turnaround AmeriCorps will send 650 volunteers into low-performing schools this fall to help improve academic achievement, attendance, high school graduation rates, and college and career readiness.
Both presidents share a commitment to volunteerism and service.
Bush, 89, established the Daily Point of Light Award in 1990 while in office. More than 1,000 of the awards were distributed between 1989 and 1993, Bush's single term as the nation's 41st president. Through its offices around the country and relationships with nonprofit groups and corporations, the Points of Light organization encourages millions of people to volunteer and recognizes those it says are making a difference.
The recipients of the 5,000th Point of Light Award were Floyd Hammer and Kathy Hamilton, a retired couple and farm owners from Union, Iowa, who created Outreach, a nonprofit organization that delivers free meals to children suffering from hunger in more than 15 countries, including the United States.
They launched the program after a trip to Tanzania, where they visited a volunteer mission to help renovate an HIV/AIDS clinic at a village hospital and saw children dying from malnutrition. The couple's program has relied on thousands of volunteers to help assemble and distribute more than 232 million free meals to children worldwide, the White House said.
Obama also has made volunteerism a theme of his presidency. In 2009, he signed legislation to more than triple the size of the AmeriCorps program from 75,000 volunteers to 250,000 by 2017. And several times a year, including on the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday and before Thanksgiving, Obama and his family help out at area food kitchens and community service projects.
Mrs. Obama and Vice President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, also lead a national drive to encourage the public to devote time to helping military families.
The first president Bush has made several visits to the Obama White House. He stopped in twice last year, in January when he and son Jeb, the former Florida governor, were in town for the annual Alfalfa Club dinner, and in May for the unveiling of George W. Bush's official portrait. During a White House ceremony in 2011, Obama recognized Bush's lifetime of public service with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
The two last saw each other in April at the dedication of George W. Bush's presidential library in Dallas.
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama holds the Bush family in "very high regard" and is looking forward to the ceremony.
Another reason to look forward to the event? To see Bush's socks.
The 41st president has become known for brightening his otherwise staid attire by wearing colorful socks. He pulled on a pair of Superman socks to celebrate his 89th birthday last month. At the dedication of his son's presidential library, Bush set off his gray suit with pink socks.
On Monday, he wore bright red and white striped socks.
"We call him GQ man," Neil Bush joked.