President Obama and Mitt Romney during an Oct. 16 debate
(USA TODAY) -- Reactions to the news that President Obama and Mitt Romney will meet Thursday are amusing -- it's almost like some people are expecting a fight to break out, or an extended taunting session.
But Obama and Romney are professional guys who will no doubt be respectful during the private lunch at the White House, even as they continue what has become a awkward political tradition.
It's hard for candidates to break bread after spending months bashing each other, especially at the presidential level. But most recent combatants have done it, eager to display a sense of national unity after a hard-fought election.
Obama did it himself four years ago, meeting with John McCain at the president-elect's Chicago office building. The two men even spoke briefly with reporters, something not scheduled for Thursday: The Obama-Romney lunch is listed as "closed press."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama believes some of Romney's ideas can be helpful as he plans a second term.
"The president noted that Governor Romney did a terrific job running the (2002 Winter) Olympics," Carney said. "That skill set lends itself to ideas that could make the federal government work better, which is a passion of the president's."
Looking back over history, one of the more interesting relationships between victor and vanquished occurred between Franklin Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie. The two met a few months after their 1940 election battle, and FDR eventually made Willkie his global ambassador during World War II.
Aides recalled a Roosevelt-Willkie meeting in which the former combatants were heard joking and laughing, despite their contentious race in which Roosevelt won an unprecedented third term.
More than five decade ago, President-elect John F. Kennedy welcomed vanquished foe Richard Nixon to his home in Palm Beach, Fla., shortly after their oh-so-close election in 1960.
It's true that Kennedy was worried that Nixon might challenge disputed vote counts in Illinois and Texas. But Nixon allayed his concern, and the two men apparently got along okay. (Kennedy also told aides he wanted to ask Nixon how he managed to carry Ohio; we don't know how much shop talk came up, but Nixon does remain the last presidential nominee to win Ohio and lose the election.)
In 1968, when he was president-elect himself, Nixon met with defeated Democrat Hubert Humphrey. Historian Michael Beschloss noted that Nixon talked about tapping Humphrey as United Nations ambassador, but Humphrey opted to resume his electoral political career instead.
(Beschloss also noted that post-election peacemaking has a long tradition; in 1861, Stephen Douglas famously held Abraham Lincoln's top hat as Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, just a month before the Civil War broke out.)
Most of these post-elections are stilted, but some blossom into friendships. Jimmy Carter, who unseated President Gerald Ford in the 1976 election, later did events with his defeated opponent.
President George H.W. Bush, defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992, later became friends with the president who defeated him, to the point where President George W. Bush joked that Clinton had practically become a member of the family.
In some cases, defeated opponents continue to become thorns in presidential sides -- a situation that is happening now. McCain, who kept his Arizona Senate seat and won re-election to it in 2010, doesn't hesitate to critique the Obama presidency, currently over the prospect of his nominating Susan Rice to be secretary of State.
More often than not, however, presidents and the men they defeated tend to go their separate ways after their post-election meeting, the cheering and jeering well behind them.
Carter never hung out with Ronald Reagan. Nor did Reagan with Walter Mondale, the senior Bush with Michael Dukakis, or the younger Bush with Al Gore. (In fact, the younger Bush did not meet with Gore at the White House until after the latter won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.)
It's hard to see Obama and Romney -- who had never met before this year's election -- becoming pals down the line. Romney is 65 years old, holds no elected office, and seems primed for retirement.
That said, we suspect it'll be a nice lunch. No arguments.