Why are Michelle Obama and George W. Bush such good friends? Inside an unlikely bipartisan relationship built on hugs, songs and cough drops

“The hug that went around the world”: former first lady Michelle Obama and President George W. Bush make unlikely besties. Photo: AP

It’s one of the most iconic and unlikely of friendships in the history of American politics.

Since 2009, former Republican president George W. Bush and former first lady Michelle Obama have amazingly hit it off, making their bond clear to the world in some surprisingly candid public moments.

In 2016, they had a sweet embrace that was impossible to fake. In 2018, Bush handed Obama cough drops on two different occasions – the first at the memorial service for late Senator John McCain, and the second at the funeral for his father, George H. W. Bush.

Most recently, the two posed for some touching pictures during President Joe Biden’s inauguration ceremony.

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Here’ a look back at their friendship over the years in photos.

The friendship blossomed in 2009, at Barack Obama’s inauguration

Former president George W. Bush and his wife Laura welcome then-president-elect Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on the North Portico of the White House in 2009. Photo: AP

It would be the first of countless events where former first lady Michelle Obama and former President George W. Bush sat near or next to each other.

It’s a relationship that’s been partly out of their hands since Obama and Bush are seatmates at official functions – which they attend a lot

Former President George W. Bush and his wife, former first lady Laura Bush, wait to pay their respects with former first lady Michelle Obama and California Governor Jerry Brown during the funeral for former first lady Nancy Reagan in 2016. Photo: Reuters

Obama explained to the hosts of NBC’s Today show in 2018 why the two always sit next to or near each other.

“President Bush and I are forever seatmates because of protocol – that’s how we sit at all the official functions,” Obama told the show’s hosts. “So he is my partner in crime at every major thing where all the formers gather.”

But even when they aren't seated, the couples can be seen together. After more than a decade of socialising with one another, Obama and Bush are like two peas in a pod.

In 2016, Obama and Bush showed the world their enduring friendship with a sweet embrace

First lady Michelle Obama hugs former President George W. Bush during the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in Washington in 2016. Photo: AP

The two attended the dedication ceremony for the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Jenna Bush Hager, Bush’s daughter, called it “the hug that went around the world.”

In 2016, the pair shared a moment during a memorial service for five police officers who were killed in Dallas. “Party doesn’t separate us. Colour, gender – those kinds of things don’t separate us. It’s the messages that we send,” Obama told NBC News in 2018.

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They also sang together

They sang the Civil War-era song Battle Hymn of the Republic to honour fallen police officers who were killed by a sniper during a peaceful protest over the police killing of two African-American men.

Bush also raised a few eyebrows for dancing and lifting his wife and Obama’s hands during the sombre song.

Bush spoke to People about their friendship in 2017

Former President George W. Bush and former first lady Michelle Obama sharing a laugh. Photo: AP

“I needle her a little bit and around her, I’m fairly lighthearted,” he said. “[The Obamas] are around serious people all the time and we just took to each other.”

He also told Ellen DeGeneres that their friendship surprised everybody.

“That’s what’s so weird about society today, [the surprise] that people on opposite sides of the political spectrum can actually like each other,” he said in 2017.

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In 2018, at late Senator John McCain’s memorial, Obama saw Laura Bush hand her husband a cough drop, and asked for one, too

Former first lady Michelle Obama, former US President Barack Obama, former vice-president Al Gore, and former US president George W. Bush arrive for the Memorial Service for US Senator John McCain at the Washington National Cathedral in 2018. Photo: AFP

“I looked over and I said, ‘Hand me a cough drop,’” she told Today. Bush did as he was told. A clip of Obama mouthing “thank you” after the handover went viral.

Bush hands Obama a cough drop at John McCain’s memorial. Photo: YouTube

According to Business Insider’s Eliza Relman, the moment “became a symbol of bipartisanship and human decency at a time of deep political and cultural division.”

In 2018, Obama said Bush was her “partner in crime”

The pair at the dedication ceremony for the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture on the National Mall in 2016. Photo: AP

In an interview with Today, Obama spoke about their friendship, after their interaction at the memorial had gone viral. She said she loved him “to death” and that he was “a wonderful and funny man.”

She also mentioned the cough drops had come in a White House box, leading her to ask how long he’d had them. He responded, “A long time – we got a lot of these!”

Then, at Bush’s father’s memorial in late 2018, as he greeted a line of past and present American presidents, he slyly slipped another cough drop into Obama’s hand. The moment was a bright spot during a sad day for the nation.

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In December 2019, Obama defended Ellen DeGeneres when the host was ridiculed for having a friendship with Bush. DeGeneres was criticised after a photo went viral showing the pair sitting together at a football game.

Obama told Today that while they have disagreed on policy, their values were the same. “We don’t disagree on humanity. We don’t disagree about love and compassion. I think that’s true for all of us. It’s just that we get lost in our fear of what’s different,” she said.

They reunited once again at President Joe Biden’s inauguration

Because of social distancing, the two sat slightly away from one another with their respective spouses. But they still took the time to squeeze in a few photos – you can see their smiles peeking out from behind their masks.

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This article originally appeared on Business Insider.

US Politics
  • Last seen together at Joe Biden’s inauguration, the former White House residents are fast friends despite their political differences
  • An unlikely embrace at Washington’s National Mall in 2016 was dubbed the ‘hug that went around the world’