Former President George W. Bush uttered his endorsement for president the other day as an elevator door was closing on him. To a question shouted by a reporter, he was said to have answered, simply, "I'm for Mitt Romney," and that was it.
It was sort of the way President-elect John F. Kennedyreported that he disclosed his selection for attorney general in 1960. JFK told how, in the middle of the night, he opened his Georgetown front door, looked in both directions, and seeing no one in sight, whispered: "It's Bobby."
In that case, Jack Kennedy was joking about the risk he was taking by naming his younger brother to head the Department of Justice. Mr. Bush, in supporting a fellow Republican who is no relation to him, faced no such dilemma. But he left the impression that by endorsing Mr. Romney he would be giving him a bad case of poison ivy.
Considering Mr. Bush's own preference to disappear into the woodwork since leaving the presidency, it suggests that the 43rd president and son of the 41st is well aware that his endorsement could be as unwelcome as a bad toothache. He is playing the once-fierce partisan who has put down his sword and has quietly slipped into retirement, with no bad feelings about all the slings and arrows thrown his way.
Perhaps it's just a matter of Dubya's temperament having calmed now that he's not carrying the world on his shoulders anymore. Or maybe he realizes that if he were to jump into the 2012 presidential fray, his presence would only help President Barack Obama in his effort to make the election even more about the mess Mr. Bush left behind.
In 2010, Mr. Obama tried and failed to use what he had inherited from his White House predecessor to build a larger Democratic majority in Congress. He's trying the same argument now to counter Mr. Romney's central campaign pitch -- that he can get the car that is the American economy out of the ditch into which Mr. Bush drove it. And nothing could be more helpful to Mr. Obama than having Dubya on the firing line as a fresh reminder of those dismal years that ended in a deep recession.
While Mr. Romney expressed his appreciation for Mr. Bush's endorsement -- through a spokesperson -- he didn't seem to be eager to drag him onto any campaign stage. Not the way he did, for example, when the likes of Donald Trump, one of the tea party darlings, gave him his blessing during the last weeks of the Republican nomination contest.
The fact is that the party's conservative wing, the prime target of Mr. Romney's courtship during this year's primaries and caucuses, is not any more enthralled with the memories of the second Bush presidency than it was with the first. Both Dubya and his father brought continued growth in the federal bureaucracy and in government spending.
So Mr. Romney apparently can't look for any great party yearnings for the good old days as he strives to pick up the pieces after a debilitating fight for the nomination. If there was any former Republican president who could stir such sentiments, it was the departed Ronald Reagan, to whom Mr. Romney bears little resemblance in his ability to inspire and charm the party faithful.
It was interesting in recent days to hear Mr. Romney accuse Mr. Obama of turning his back on his Democratic predecessor in the Oval Office, of forgetting it was "almost a generation ago Bill Clinton announced that the era of big government was over." Mr. Obama, Mr. Romney said, "tucked away the Clinton doctrine in his large drawer of discarded ideas, along with transparency and bipartisanship."
But in contrast to the brush-block of a Romney endorsement from Mr. Bush, Mr. Clinton already is all-out in active campaign support of Mr. Obama. He is probably the most effective cheerleader in bringing back some of the lost enthusiasm for the incumbent among Democratic liberals over the last three years.
It will be interesting to see how Mr. Romney will deal with this first lukewarm endorsement from the junior Mr. Bush, who seems to have little interest in getting into the 2012 fight for the White House, in which there is no demonstrable enthusiasm yet for his party's prospective nominee.
Jules Witcover is a former longtime writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at email@example.com.