DALLAS — Former first lady Laura Bush spoke Wednesday during a preview tour of the new George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum at her alma mater, Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
President Barack Obama is expected to join the Bushes, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter for the library’s dedication Thursday.
Laura Bush, who was involved in the library’s design of Texas limestone and pecan, said she hopes visitors are touched by the 9/11 display, which includes a twisted steel beam from Tower 2 of the World Trade Center.
“I think people will be very moved by the 9/11 exhibit and I think that’s important because we still live with the effect of 9/11, both our security issues that we have and of course the loss that we still live with,” she said while answering questions in a garden outside the museum that mimics the White House Rose Garden design, substituting plants native to Texas.
“George walked a family through recently and realized that the children that were on the tour with them weren’t alive on Sept. 11 and so they had no direct memory of it like all of us do,” Bush continued. “Of course I remember where I was and who I was with — I was with Senator Ted Kennedy and Senator Judd Gregg in the capital.”
Bush said the exhibit also reminded her of “meeting the families and going to that memorial service in that field in Shanksville. I remember the families that came to the White House more than once. I think some will be at the opening of the library.”
“I also remember how united we were as a country. And I think that’s an important lesson for us. We should be united. There’s more that unites us than divides us and we need to be reminded of that.”
She noted that the exhibit opens with photos of the couple’s Texas ranch and examples of the Bush agenda pre-9/11: tax cuts, faith-based initiatives, the No Child Left Behind Act, their first state dinner with Mexico: “And then you turn the corner and see the big beam from the World Trade Center.”
“Even in the way we tried to lay out the museum, you can see the way our lives changed and the lives of everyone in this country changed after Sept. 11,” she said.
She also noted how designers re-created the Bush White House situation room as the Decision Points Theater, an interactive exhibit that forces visitors to decide how they would have handled four crises: the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the troop surge, Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis. In the Katrina portion, images stream of people trapped atop homes and in rising water as newscasters warn of chaos in the streets.
“The idea was to show people what it’s like to have to make decisions quickly with the press hounding you,” Bush said. “I think people will find it interesting to relive those decisions.”
She said it was not difficult to part with her ball gowns for the exhibit. (“You know George is not wild about black tie.”) She said she particularly enjoyed the museum’s replica of her husband’s Oval Office, which Bush press secretary Karen Hughes said Wednesday was so lifelike “I felt like I was going to work.”
The library also includes exhibits on the global war on terrorism, Afghanistan and Iraq featuring Saddam Hussein’s 9 mm pistol, seized during his capture. Bush’s national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, said the former president enjoyed the museum and thinks his decisions have stood the test of time.
“He based his decisions on principles, he tried to make the best decisions he could, and I think he is at peace with that,” Hadley said at the library Wednesday.
Joshua Bolten, Bush’s chief of staff, was also at the library Wednesday, and praised library designers who “made the wise decision to take the difficulties of the Bush administration and face them head on: the failure to find weapons of mass destruction, Katrina, the financial crisis.” There’s even an exhibit with video of Bush, Al Gore and Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris detailing the tumultuous 2000 election and Florida recount.
“So many difficult things happened during that presidency,” Bolten said, and although the library won’t boost Bush’s popularity among detractors, he said, “It will help people see the legacy through a more objective lens.”
Elsewhere in Dallas on Wednesday, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — both possible presidential contenders in 2016 — were scheduled to speak before the library’s dedication.