The dedication of the library may have reopened the debate over Bush’s presidency, giving historians, commentators and partisans an opportunity to appraise and reappraise his tenure. But that wasn’t the mission of the members of the most exclusive club in the world, as the group of current and former presidents is called. One after another, they found ways to accentuate the positive.
His fellow presidents described Bush as strong, resolute, courageous and compassionate. He drew praise for defending the country after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and for saving lives in Africa with his initiative to combat HIV/AIDS. He was commended for trying to reform the country’s immigration system, an issue that is back on the national agenda.
Jimmy Carter made a passing reference to the disputed 2000 election, but the closest anyone really got to the controversies of his presidency was Bush himself. Noting that one hallmark of free people is the right to disagree with each other and with their leaders, the former president said, “I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right.”
President Obama led the tributes, joined by former presidents Bill Clinton, Carter and Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush. The elder Bush was in a wheelchair and gave only brief remarks. But he was hearty enough to stand, haltingly and with help from his wife, Barbara, and his son, to acknowledge a standing ovation from thousands of people gathered on a sun-splashed plaza outside the entrance to the library and museum.
Obama noted that the last time the living presidents all met was just before he took office in 2009. “I needed that,” he said. “Because as each of these leaders will tell you, no matter how much you may think you’re ready to assume the office of the presidency, it’s impossible to truly understand the nature of the job until it’s yours, until you’re sitting at that desk.”
It is why, when decades of Oval Office experience are on the same stage, that the presidents all strive for mutual respect, even if their personal relationships are at best proper or even occasionally frosty, as is the case between Bush and the president who succeeded him.
Obama has criticized Bush for invading Iraq, for taking his eye off the ball in Afghanistan and for policies that he said led to the financial collapse in 2008. But on Thursday, he found plenty to like in his predecessor. He called Bush “a good man” who is “comfortable in his skin.” Beyond the personal, he said that when the country was attacked on Sept. 11, Bush responded laudably.