A long flight on Air Force One to Nelson Mandela’s memorial service is giving President Barack Obama some rare private time with two key figures in his political life -- the man whose legacy he ran against, and the woman poised for another try after he bested her five years ago.
Former President George W. Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are accompanying Obama on the presidential aircraft along with first lady Michelle Obama and former first lady Laura Bush for the 16-hour flight to Johannesburg.
Shortly after their takeoff yesterday from Andrews Air Force Base, they met in a conference room aboard the jet and shared memories of Mandela, joined by Attorney General Eric Holder, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, according to Deputy National Security adviser Ben Rhodes and White House press secretary Jay Carney.
“It’s a unique experience,” Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president.
Including ex-presidents and their spouses in such events is tradition. Bush invited his own father, former President George H.W. Bush, and former President Bill Clinton, to fly with him after Pope John Paul II died in 2005.
The backdrop for this Obama-Bush-Clinton summit is the legacy of Mandela, an anti-apartheid hero imprisoned for 27 years before his election as South Africa’s first black president in 1994.
At his death Dec. 5 at the age of 95, Mandela was an international symbol of the power of political reconciliation on a scale that dwarfs any resolution of past tension between Obama and Bush or Clinton.
Today’s service for Mandela at a sports stadium is to be packed with South African mourners and leaders from around the world.
Former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, also invited to join Obama on Air Force One, are flying separately. George H.W. Bush, 89, was not able to make the trip.
Among the international dignitaries attending the memorial are U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron along with former premiers Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, French President Francois Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff.
Limits by the South African government on the size of foreign delegations attending the memorial meant Obama could not assemble a broader delegation of civil rights and business leaders, celebrities and other public figures to accompany him to Johannesburg. Congressional lawmakers are traveling separately.
Obama, 52, is scheduled to speak at the Mandela memorial. Rhodes said that while the president has spoken of the South African leader many times, he has only been working on his remarks since learning of Mandela’s death and getting confirmation that he would address the crowd, Rhodes said.
For Bush, 67, and Obama, a shared interest in health and development programs on the African continent has served as bridge between two men with little in common politically.
Earlier this year, the men jointly participated in an embassy wreath-laying event in Tanzania, when the Bushes’ involvement in an international women’s event coincided with the timing of the Obamas’ three-country Africa tour.
The flight with Obama to South Africa is Bush’s first on Air Force Once since leaving office in 2009. Bush visited reporters in the press cabin on the flight, first alone and later with his wife, and declined requests for interviews.
Before leaving Senegal, where Air Force One was refueled, Clinton also spoke to reporters to give her recollections of Mandela. She was wearing a bracelet with the number 46664 etched on it -- Mandela’s prison identification number. She said Mandela had given it to her several years ago.
For Clinton, 66, who lost to Obama in the 2008 Democratic primary and then served as his first-term secretary of state, snagging a coveted ride to the high-profile Mandela service shines a spotlight on her prospective 2016 presidential bid. It also gives her some one-on-one time with the most recent Republican and Democrat to occupy the office.