Michelle Obama Explains Her Candy Passing Moment With GWB At John McCain's Funeral

by Monica Hunter-Hart
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images News/Getty Images

People yearning for some bipartisan friendliness in a tense political climate were gratified by a small and amusing episode at John McCain's service. George W. Bush was seen passing something to Michelle Obama, and a clip of their subtle exchange quickly went viral. During an interview on NBC's Today show on Thursday, Obama explained her moment with Bush at McCain's funeral.

The two former dignitaries sat together in the front row for the service at the Washington National Cathedral in early September. During Joe Lieberman's speech, the camera cut away to show Bush taking something from his wife, Laura, and handing it to Michelle, who accepted it with a small smile. Social media lit up in response. Some speculated that they might have been sharing candy; others thought it could be a tissue.

Well, apparently it was a cough drop. "I will add that they were old cough drops," Obama told NBC hosts Hoda Kotb and Savannah Guthrie on Thursday. "That's the funny thing. Because they were in the little White House box, the Altoids, and I was like, 'How long have you had these?!' And he said, 'A long time, we've got a lot of these.'"

"It was a simple gesture," Obama continued. "I didn't realize at the time that anybody noticed what we were doing."

She explained that she always sits next to Bush at formal events: "We were sitting together — you know, President Bush and I are forever seatmates because of protocol, that's how we sit at all the official functions. So he is my partner in crime at every major thing where all the formers gather."

(If it's protocol that former first ladies sit next to the president who preceded them, that means President Obama's "forever seatmate" will be Melania Trump. Wrap your head around that. They did already sit together at Barbara Bush's funeral, where Obama apparently made her laugh.)

"We're together all the time and I love him to death," Obama said, referring to Bush. "He's a wonderful man. He's a funny man." The feeling is mutual: Bush told People last year that he and Obama "just took to each other," and added: "I needle her a little bit and around her, I'm fairly lighthearted."

Although Obama calls the cough drop exchange a "simple gesture," she acknowledges that such moments can have large import. "That's what people are hungry for," she said on Today. "They're hungry for what we all know: That party doesn't separate us. Color, gender. Those kind of things don't separate us. It's the messages that we send."

The former first lady continued by explaining that she specifically tries to model decent behavior in bipartisan settings. "If we're the adults and the leaders in the room and we're not showing that level of decency, we cannot expect our children to do the same," she told NBC. "So that's what I think about when I think about the gestures and the symbols and what our words mean. ... I think about the next generation. Every single time."