“Well, I think the fact that the three of us are standing here talking about a peaceful transfer of power speaks to the institutional integrity of our country,” George W. Bush said

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Former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton attended Joe Biden's inauguration ceremony on Wednesday morning, went with him to a ceremonial wreath-laying that afternoon — and appeared later in the night during the Celebrating America primetime special to wish the 46th president luck and to underscore (without having to say why) the rightness of transferring power.

Two weeks to the day after a deadly insurrection on the U.S. Capitol incited by Donald Trump, the three former leaders spoke of the "peaceful transfer of power" in their brief joint appearance, from Arlington's Memorial Amphitheater, which was followed up by a performance from Demi Lovato.

"Good evening, America. Obviously, there was a personal element to seeing my former vice president become the 46th president, to see Kamala Harris as our first woman vice president," Obama, 59, began. "But more broadly, I think inaugurations signal a tradition of a peaceful transfer of power that is over two centuries old."

"Well, I think the fact that the three of us are standing here talking about a peaceful transfer of power speaks to the institutional integrity of our country," said Bush, 74. 

Outgoing President Trump was notably absent from the inauguration ceremony Wednesday morning and instead flew to Florida before Biden was sworn in. Trump is the first president in modern history not to attend his successor's inauguration.

"So this is an unusual thing — we are both trying to come back to normalcy, deal with totally abnormal challenges, and do what we do best, which is try to make a more perfect union," Clinton, 74, added. "It's exciting times."

Obama continued: "We've gotta not just listen to folks we agree with but listen to folks we don't." 

"One of my fondest memories of the inauguration was the grace and generosity that President Bush showed me, and Laura Bush showed Michelle," Obama said, looking back on his own inauguration in 2009. "It was a reminder that we can have fierce disagreements, and yet recognize each other's common humanity, and that as Americans, we have more in common than what separates us."

"I think if Americans would love their neighbor like they'd like to be loved themselves, a lot of the division in our society would end," Bush said. 

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From left: former Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama appearing in the Celebrating American inauguration special on Wednesday
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celebrating america
Barack Obama
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Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States At U.S. Capitol Inauguration Ceremony
President Joe Biden giving his inaugural address as president
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Former US president Barak Obama (R) congratulates US President Joe Biden after he was sworn in, on January 20, 2021
Former US president Barak Obama (R) congratulates US President Joe Biden after he was sworn in
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"That's what this means," Clinton said, "It's a new beginning."

Clinton, who took office in 1993, went on to encourage Americans to check in with "friends and neighbors" to try to make unity possible. 

Obama, Bush and Clinton — who like the many former presidents before them regularly make appearances together at official state functions — all wished Biden success on his presidency to conclude the message.

Former U.S. President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and former U.S. President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attend a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier after the President Joe Biden's Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol January 20, 2021
Former U.S. President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, and former U.S. President George W. Bush and Laura Bush, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
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President Joe Biden signed executive orders in the Oval Office soon after he was sworn in last month
| Credit: Evan Vucci/AP/Shutterstock

When he arrived in the Oval Office on Wednesday afternoon to begin his presidential duties, Biden confirmed to reporters that Trump left him a note in the Resolute Desk before departing for Florida, a gesture that came after months of Trump refusing to accept the election results.

"The president wrote a very generous letter," Biden said. "Because it was private, I will not talk about it until I talk to him. But it was generous."