05/31/2012 05:06 EDT | Updated 07/31/2012 05:12 EDT

Obama, Bush chummy as George W.'s White House portrait is unveiled

WASHINGTON - The Bushes were back in the White House on Thursday, cracking wise with U.S. President Barack Obama as a portrait of the 43rd president was unveiled in a friendly ceremony void of politics but rife with laughs.

Apparently not nursing any hard feelings that Obama has been maligning his record for the past four years, a cheerful George W. Bush made a rare public appearance to praise his hosts, his wife, Laura, and his new portrait.

"Thank you so much for inviting our rowdy friends to my hanging," Bush told the president and first lady Michelle Obama in the ornate East Room after a private lunch that included 14 members of his family, including his parents and children.

To an eruption of raucous laughter, he added: "I am also pleased, Mr. President, that when you are wandering these halls as you wrestle with tough decisions, you will now be able to gaze at this portrait and ask: 'What would George do?'"

The event was heavily attended by members of Bush's White House team, including strategist Karl Rove, onetime homeland security chief Tom Ridge and former secretary of state Colin Powell.

They were among those laughing hardest when Bush was particularly self-deprecating.

Obama too got some big laughs.

"George, I will always remember the gathering you hosted for all the living former presidents before I took office, your kind words of encouragement ... plus, you also left me a really good TV sports package," he said. "I use it."

Even the famously genteel Laura Bush — described by her husband as "the greatest first lady ever" before apologizing to his mother, also a former first lady — got into the act.

Her portrait was also unveiled on Thursday. Like her husband's, it was painted by artist John Howard Sanden.

"It was really gracious of you to invite us back to the White House to hang a few family pictures," Laura Bush told the Obamas. "And I'm sure you know nothing makes a house a home like having portraits of its former occupants staring down at you from the walls."

But she also sounded a serious, sentimental tone that left her twin daughters, Jenna and Barbara, fighting back tears.

"I hope others will see in this portrait what I see: a woman who was honoured and humbled to live in the White House during a period of great challenge, and who will never forget the countless American faces who make up the true portrait of that time," she said.

By and large, remarks by Laura Bush and Michelle Obama reflected the well-documented affection between the two women.

"I'd like to take this opportunity to thank Laura for providing such a wonderful model of strength and grace for me to follow as first lady," Michelle Obama said.

"It's just been amazing to learn from your example not just as a first lady, but as a mother of two wonderful daughters .... You've done a terrific job."

Obama too praised Bush for serving the country, adding that only a former president truly understands the difficulties of the job.

"In this job, no decision that reaches your desk is easy, no choice you make is without cost, no matter how hard you try, you're not going to make everybody happy," Obama said. "I think that's something that President Bush and I both learned pretty quickly."

It was a veritable love-in considered Obama has long blamed Bush's economic policies for causing a devastating economic recession that lingers to this day. He's also warned that his current rival for the White House, Mitt Romney, would offer more of the same.

As recently as a week ago, Obama assailed Romney for an economic platform he said rewards the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

"That was tried, remember? The last guy did all this," Obama said.

And yet it's hardly the first time current and past presidents have hit it off, despite their public, political differences.

According to a new book, "The President's Club," Herbert Hoover and Harry S. Truman had a tight relationship.

In 1962, John F. Kennedy asked his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, for advice during the Cuban missile crisis.

And Bush's father, 41st president George H. W. Bush, once famously said he viewed Bill Clinton as another son despite the fact that the former Arkansas governor deprived him of a second term. George W. is also fond of Clinton, the 42nd president.

"Listen, Clinton and I are buddies," Bush said two years ago. "First of all, we're born one month apart. We're now members of the former presidents club. We have done speaking engagements together. And I generally like him."

Clinton, for his part, has waxed poetic about Richard Nixon, according to "The President's Club." Speaking to the book's authors last year, Clinton said Nixon gave him top-notch advice on Russia, adding he annually reread a letter on the subject from the former president.