Lunch is on the menu, but that's probably about it.
For President Barack Obama, the meal he's having with Mitt Romney at the White House on Thursday is another important post-election, post-partisan moment. For Romney, it's a chance to make sure his last impression on the political consciousness isn't all about the word "gifts."
But like most Washington rituals, the former rivals' get-together is expected to be more symbolism, less substance.
And this one isn't even much of a ritual. There are warm memories of Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford becoming close friends, and Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush bonding while leading the Haiti relief effort, but those are the exceptions.
Running against a rival for the presidency isn't the best way to make a friend, or even an acquaintance. Most of them are lucky to do even marginally better than Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt, who sat in silence for their whole car ride to the 1932 inauguration, broken only by FDR admiring the construction work being done on the Commerce Department as they drove by.
For pairs of rivals like Obama and Romney that only include one president, the history of relationships is even worse.
"We never sat down for this kind of conversation," said former Vice President Walter Mondale, reflecting on the Thursday invitation and the end of his own race against Ronald Reagan.
After his concession call in 1984, they never even talked on the phone.
"No," Mondale said. "I would have been glad to, but no -- and for years, I had plenty of time."
He's not the only one to miss out.
"There's a tradition of open amity, but very seldom do these folks actually get along," said former John Kerry senior adviser Bob Shrum. "It's a nice thing to do in terms of ratifying the democratic process. But it doesn't lead to anything."
Kerry and George W. Bush didn't even get as far as a meal in 2004, despite all the talk of wrapping their arms around each other.
"He was very gracious," Bush said, after the counting was finished in Ohio and Kerry conceded. "Laura and I wish Sen. Kerry and Teresa and their whole family all our best wishes."
"We had a good conversation, and we talked about the danger of division in our country, and the need, the desperate need for unity, for finding the common ground, coming together," Kerry said earlier that day on stage at Faneuil Hall in Boston. "Today, I hope that we can begin the healing."
They never spoke again, Shrum said. Not once. For four years, the entire rest of Bush's term. Not about a bill, even though Kerry was still in the Senate. Not over a bike ride or a windsurfing trip. Not over a post-campaign lunch -- Bush didn't arrange one -- or any meal after.
Bush didn't seek him out, and Kerry wasn't much interested, either.
"He was disappointed he lost -- I don't know that anger's the right word, but certainly a lot of disrespect for some of the things that Bush did in the campaign," Shrum said.
Like Kerry and Bush, Obama and Romney barely knew each other before they began beating each other up every day on the campaign trail. John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon had served together in Congress, but even for them, the post-election relationship didn't consist of much more than a photo-op.
"There's really no relationships," said Ed Rollins, a former Reagan aide who managed his 1984 campaign against Mondale. "It's not like you come away from a campaign feeling more fondly to your opponent, even if you liked them going in."
Reagan, Rollins said, wouldn't have minded talking more with Mondale, though the two never did. But Rollins said Reagan couldn't stand Carter, whom he felt was always lecturing him. Many former presidents have struck up relationships across deep political divides -- Obama spoke several times with George W. Bush during his first term, for example, and Clinton often sought out Nixon -- but Reagan wasn't interested in talking to Carter.
They had their obligatory meeting at the White House to talk transition after the race. But after that, the lines basically went dead, aside from a few state events and the dedication of Carter's presidential library in 1986. That day, Carter told Reagan his speech was so good, Carter finally understood why he'd lost the 1980 election.
"They never were close, but Carter came to appreciate Reagan," said Gerry Rafshoon, Carter's communications director.
Carter had taken a very different approach to the man he beat. It began with the ad-lib at the beginning of his inaugural address: "For myself and for our nation, I want to thank my predecessor for all he has done to heal our land," Carter said. It continued with the many calls he made from the Oval Office seeking Ford's advice. Carter laid the groundwork for what would become not just a close friendship compared with other former presidential rivals, but the kind of close friendship that comes along rarely for anyone.
"Almost best friends," Rafshoon said.
Over the 25 years from Carter's loss to Ford's death, they collaborated frequently. Reagan asked them, along with Nixon, to lead the U.S. delegation to Egypt for President Anwar Sadat's funeral. They worked together on fundraising for their presidential libraries and other joint events and efforts. They spoke on the phone. They made a deal for the first one to die to get a eulogy from the other. Even their wives became close, bonding over the connections between Betty Ford's attention to substance abuse and Rosalynn Carter's focus on mental health.
But that's the exception. George McGovern finished the 1972 race still fuming, and there's a classic staged photo of him holding a copy of the Washington Star-News with the headline "Nixon Resigning," his eyebrow arched, on the verge of an annoyed, can-you-believe-it-I-can eye-roll.
Mondale only remembers a few conversations ever with Reagan before or after the '84 race, none more substantive than saying hello when right after Reagan's inauguration they went with Carter and George H.W. Bush to meet the returned Iranian hostages, or their chit-chat at their debates. "That's about as much as I had to do with him," Mondale said.
George H.W. Bush invited Michael Dukakis to the Naval Observatory after the 1988 race. Clinton gave Bob Dole the Presidential Medal of Freedom at an event a few days before Clinton's second inauguration. A week after he finally conceded, Al Gore hosted George W. Bush for a snowy photo-op handshake before they quickly disappeared into a private meeting that lasted all of 20 minutes.
Obama invited Sen. John McCain to Chicago for a chat two weeks after the election, and they smiled for the cameras and even released a joint statement afterward. "We hope to work together in the days and months ahead on critical challenges like solving our financial crisis, creating a new energy economy, and protecting our nation's security," they said.
They've met and spoken a few times since, but as their deeply personal dust-up over the attacks on U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice made clear, they've done little to put the 2008 race behind them.
Obama and Romney started out not liking each other. That only got worse as the campaign went on. And at the end, Romney's delayed concession call and post-election swipes at Obama kept feelings raw.
Obama, for his part, is using the election as proof that the country rejected Romney's vision -- and he's pushing a tax plan that's clearly going to cost Romney money.
Even without all those factors, there wasn't much hope for a relationship, said presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin.
"It's too bad, because by the time you become a presidential candidate, you've had the experience that only the rival has been through. And you would think that would lead to something," she said.
Noting that the rivals who developed relationships have generally been challengers who beat incumbents, Goodwin added, "At least the presidents have that bond of having both been president. The rivals are down a level from that, so the bitterness is up a level."
For Thursday's lunch, Mondale had some unsolicited advice for Romney, as a fellow candidate defeated by an incumbent: Don't push for much, and don't expect it to lead to much.
"Take it as an opportunity to show respect to the president and the presidency, to show Americans that Democrats and Republicans can join on a deeper basis for our country," Mondale said. "And maybe that there's something that comes out of there, fine, but at least do that."
There's been talk of Obama giving Romney some role going forward, though they haven't settled on what.
"There are certain aspects of Gov. Romney's record and his ideas that I think could be very helpful," Obama said at a news conference the day after the election, though when pressed for specifics said only, "I do think he did a terrific job running the Olympics. And that skill set of trying to figure out how do we make something work better applies to the federal government."
Whether Romney would ever want such a role is unclear. But Mondale said he thought the former GOP nominee would do better to let Obama take the lead.
"I would think in this conversation it wouldn't be a good idea to ask for something," Mondale said. "But the president could ask Romney if he would be willing to do something."
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