Maybe it was the unexpected warmth of the gesture, the sheer enveloping display of affection.
Maybe it was his response, the beatific expression on his face, eyes almost closed, head tilted toward her shoulder.
Maybe it was the moment: tenderness at a time when presidential politics has become a festival of cruelty.
But when Michelle Obama hugged former President George W. Bush on Saturday, at a ceremony to open the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the image quickly took flight online.
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It became an instant metaphor. Some saw the lost virtue of civility in politics; others, the unlikely friendships that blossom at the rarefied heights of public life. To critics on the left, it was a shameful case of political amnesia by the wife of a president who spent years cleaning up the mess left by his predecessor.
Michelle Obama and Bush have had a few such memorable moments. In July in Dallas at a memorial service for five police officers killed by an Army veteran, the two held hands while singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” When Bush began swaying to the music, Michelle Obama gamely let him swing her arm back and forth.
In June 2012, when Bush returned to the White House for the unveiling of his official portrait, he aimed a few wisecracks at President Barack Obama. But he saved his best material for Michelle Obama, reminding her that when British soldiers set fire to the White House in 1814, another first lady, Dolley Madison, rescued the portrait of the first George W. – as in Washington.
“Now, Michelle,” he said, gesturing to his own painting, “if anything happens, there’s your man.”
Some of these encounters are explained by proximity. When the Obamas and the Bushes appear in public together, protocol dictates that Michelle Obama stand next to Bush.
But some of it also has to do with the relationship between the couples, which current and former officials say has deepened over the past seven and a half years, both because of the shared bond of living in the White House and because of Bush’s decorum as an ex-president.