DALLAS — A rare conclave of five U.S. presidents, bonded by pressures and crises others can only imagine, joined arms Thursday to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
With gentle nods to rivalry and disagreements past and current, they celebrated the nation’s 43rd commander-in-chief — the strength he projected, and the devotion he poured into the job. Amid a bright spring sunshine and under extraordinary security, they hailed bipartisanship and resolve.
The speeches and ceremony focused on areas of agreement, such as Bush’s effort to combat AIDS in Africa. Bush himself acknowledged the controversy of his tenure.
“The political winds blow left and right, the polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold,” Bush said, adding that his guiding conviction, is that this country “must strive to expand the reach of freedom.”
“I dedicate this library with unshakable faith in the future of our country,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead.”
The grand civic pageant lasted less than 90 minutes but brought thousands of former Bush aides and supporters to the campus of Southern Methodist University. Prime ministers and presidents who shared the world stage with Bush baked under the cloudless sky.
“This is a Texas-sized party, and that’s worthy of what we’re here to do today,” President Barack Obama said, after a private tour with the other presidents. He spoke of the presidents’ club as a “support group,” much needed, because “It’s impossible to truly understand the nature of the job until yours.”
He spoke of Bush’s “incredible strength and resolve” after the Sept. 11 attacks, the “compassion” he showed in leading a global fight against malaria and HIV, the “commitment to reach across the aisle, to unlikely allies like Sen. Edward Kennedy,” to ensure a good education for all children and to overhaul immigration policy, a fight that still persists.
“Mr. President, for your service, for your courage, for your sense of humor and most of all for your love of country, thank you very much,” Obama said.
Nearby, protesters decried Bush’s invasion of Iraq and other policies in demonstrations that remained peaceful.
Apart from Obama and his four predecessors, history may well record that more than merely five presidents attended Thursday’s festivities. Among the others on hand with potential White House ambitions in 2016: Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida and brother and son of presidents, and Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, senator and secretary of state.
The library will give scholars and tourists alike an opportunity to reminisce about the controversies of the Bush era. And there were many.
Debate still rages over his decision to invade Iraq after the Sept. 11 attacks, on the pretext that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that were never found. His handling of Afghanistan, where U.S. forces are as yet engaged in this nation’s longest war, remains controversial.
There were fights over a costly expansion of Medicare to add drug benefits for seniors, failed efforts to overhaul Social Security and enact immigration reform — issues that continue to vex Washington.
Clinton lauded Bush for putting these fights on display at his library. By inviting second-guessing, he said, “he has honored that deepest American tradition” of robust debate.
“We’re here to celebrate a country we all love, a service we all render. And debate and difference is a part of every free society,” Clinton said.
Of all the presidents on the dais, Obama has been the most critical. He built his 2008 campaign around promises to undo the Bush legacy and reverse policies foreign and domestic. He spent most of his first term trying to do that, all the while pointing at the struggling economy he inherited.
Bush himself had won the White House promising to restore honor and integrity to the Oval Office, a swipe at Clinton.
But bitterness fades with time, and former presidents are generous and gentle with one another, at least in public.
Just as most eulogies gloss past the warts and shortcomings of the departed loved one, those who spoke Thursday emphasized the positive. At times it had the feel of a roast.
Democratic President Jimmy Carter hailed Bush’s efforts early in his term to stop civil war in Sudan. And he joked about a cartoon in which a child says that he grows up, he wants to be a former president — clearly a less arduous role.
“Four of us have already made that goal. One of us is working on it,” Carter said.
On the plaza at the Bush Center, a sea of VIPs filled white folding chairs.
The governors of Texas, Arizona and New Jersey were on hand, along with Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison. Seven Texas congressmen, all Republicans, were on hand.
Longtime Bush strategists Karl Rove, Karen Hughes and Mark McKinnon mingled with the likes of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, House Speaker John Boehner, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and famous and unknown alumni of the Bush era.
Jim Oberwetter, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and president of the Dallas Regional Chamber, called it a great day.
“But the bigger import is what it means for the city and for SMU. I believe it moves us up a notch in terms of international. Because it becomes a center for academic discussion and debate in addition to the programs our president has,” he said.
As for Bush, Oberwetter said, “He served at a very difficult time in our nation’s history and 9-11 shaped his presidency. Yes, there’s a lot of controversy remaining, but President Obama has continued many of the policies that the president put in place, especially with respect to counterterrorism.”
“Right here, there’s a so much loyalty to this president and what he went through and the eight years,” said U.S. Rep. Roger Williams of Texas, a longtime Bush friend, waiting for the ceremony to begin. “It’s a chance to remind people he did a lot things, a lot of great things, for those eight years.”
Don Evans, Bush’s childhood friend from Midland, Texas, and later, his commerce secretary, opened the program. He spoke of Bush’s “steady resolve and principled leadership.”
Today, he said, is a day to honor the Bushes’ service and “to honor the American presidency.”
Apart from five living presidents, relatives of Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan lent yet more sense of history to the occasion. There were five first ladies, current and former.
Since leaving office, Bush has shied from the public arena, maintaining that former presidents only cause their successors trouble by opining on topics of the day. And GOP leaders haven’t exactly embraced a man whose presidency is still viewed unfavorably by many Americans.
So the former president has altogether avoided the campaign trail — in stark contrast to his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton — and focused instead on the George W. Bush Institute, a nonpartisan policy think tank housed at the center.
The institute builds upon aspects of the Bush White House, addressing issues like education reform, global health and military service.
The ongoing policy work has sometimes brought Bush in conflict with his party — particularly the increasingly influential “tea party” crowd — as he has pushed foreign aid, federal accountability in education and a “benevolent spirit” in the immigration debate.
Bush has suggested the principles that guided his presidency need to be “articulated and defended as time goes on,” but he has avoided giving his fellow Republicans any specific directions or advice.
That’s partly because Bush isn’t eager to re-enter the spotlight, even to defend his presidency; if his center wasn’t opening, any retrospectives on the Bush White House would almost certainly lack the former commander in chief’s perspective.
The Bush Center’s unveiling, however, has forced the former president and his confidants to confront his tenure.
Bush loyalists are champing at the bit to set the facts straight from their view.
And when prodded recently in an interview with The Dallas Morning News, Bush didn’t think twice about offering a spirited defense on everything from his fiscal record to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to the philosophy of compassionate conservatism.
He and his wife, Laura, have stressed that while history will prove the ultimate judge, it’s important for people to remember the circumstances surrounding key moments.
“It’s easy to forget what life was like when the decision was made,” Bush said, referring specifically to the Iraq invasion.
In explaining that heat of the moment, the center’s museum features two distinct parts: the presidency Bush planned and the one he got.
Early exhibits focus on tax cuts, faith-based initiatives and No Child Left Behind. But as warped World Trade Center steel comes into view, a museum panel reminds visitors that Sept. 11 thrust Bush into a “new and unexpected role: War President.”
The 14,000-square-foot exhibition hall, while not shying away from the Bush years’ more contentious parts, takes pains to elucidate Bush’s decision-making process.
The museum concedes that no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. But it highlights the evils of Saddam Hussein, noting that the dictator “supported terrorism, including paying the families of suicide bombers.”
The hall chronicles the disasters that were Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial meltdown. But it counters that Bush “met each crisis by working to restore order and providing practical plans for recovery.”
And the Decision Points Theater lets visitors explore four major Bush decisions, hear competing viewpoints and then vote for the best course of action. Ultimately, though, Bush comes on the screen to describe why he did what he did.