WASHINGTON – At long last, Mitt Romney made it to the White House on Thursday, though not in the way he once imagined.
The defeated Republican presidential candidate was driven up in a black sport utility vehicle and greeted outside the gate by a heckler who yelled at him through the passenger-side window. Romney opened his own door. He disappeared into the West Wing through a side entrance.
President Barack Obama was waiting for him, playing host to his election rival in a one-on-one luncheon in the presidential dining room. There was no pomp and little circumstance, at least publicly, with reporters and photographers barred from the hourlong event.
“Each man wanted to have a private conversation,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said when asked why the media were not allowed to witness the lunch. “They did not want to turn it into a press event.”
The White House press corps had other ideas, intent on documenting a moment that Carney had touted just a day earlier as a symbol of the nation’s peaceful democratic electoral process.
Reporters staking out Romney could barely see his arrival, kept about 100 meters away near the North Lawn. Photographers, standing on ladders to get a view over a row of shoulder-high shrubs, captured only grainy images through their high-powered telephoto lenses.
Romney arrived after meeting with his former running mate, Wisconsin Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, on Capitol Hill, where they had discussed ways to resolve the nation’s fiscal and economic challenges.
He was wearing a sober blue suit and striped tie, his hair slicked back into the familiar style that looked so disheveled shortly after the election in a now infamous snapshot of him pumping his own gas.
That was the last reporters saw of the former Massachusetts governor until White House staff photographer Pete Souza posted a photo Thursday on the administration’s Flickr page of Obama and Romney shaking hands in the middle of the Oval Office.
In the picture, the two men are looking into each other’s eyes, their right hands engaged in a firm grip. The door is decked out in festive red-and-green holiday bunting and a distinguished portrait of Abraham Lincoln looks on from the wall.
There had been some speculation among pundits that Obama might offer Romney a role in his administration, but Carney dismissed that idea.
“This was a conversation the president wanted to have with Gov. Romney, as he mentioned the night of the election. There was not an agenda involved,” the spokesman said.
Pressed repeatedly by reporters to release some information about the lunch, the White House eventually issued a one-paragraph statement reporting that Romney congratulated Obama on his victory and wished him well.
Romney, who had derided Obama during the campaign for what he called a worldwide “apology tour” that demeaned the United States, discussed “America’s leadership in the world and the importance of maintaining that leadership position in the future,” the statement said.
The White House also disclosed that Obama had fed his former challenger a lunch spread of white turkey chili and chicken salad, a revelation that prompted pundits to wonder whether the president had intended the menu as an unspoken put-down.
“Obama served Romney white turkey chili? Was that meant to be funny?” conservative columnist David Frum observed on Twitter.