But he turned serious when he spoke of the events that transformed his presidency and of what he said was the guiding principle of that presidency, which was the advancement of freedom around the world.
“When our freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep people safe,” Bush said. Whether people agree or disagree with choices he made, he said, visitors to his museum would find “we stayed true to those principles.”
As he finished, his voice was choked with emotion. He wiped away a tear when he sat down.
Clinton joked that he has developed such a close relationship with the elder Bush and shares stages so often with the younger Bush that he has become “the black-sheep son” of the family. “My mother told me not to speak too long, and Barbara, I will not let you down,” he said.
He was generous in praising Bush for the initiative to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, saying no president in his party could have gotten such legislation through Congress. He said he has seen the faces of people whose lives were saved by Bush’s efforts.
Carter echoed that theme in his brief remarks, thanking Bush for helping the neediest people on Earth.
What wasn’t said by any of the speakers, but what the assemblage of presidents symbolized, was the degree to which George W. Bush’s presidency ushered in two eras.
One, obviously, was America in the age of terrorism. Terrorist attacks took place in other presidencies and al-Qaeda struck repeatedly during Clinton’s presidency. But 9/11 and Bush’s response changed the way the country thought about and responded to these threats.
The second was the realization that red-blue divisions and partisan polarization became a permanent part of the country’s politics during Bush’s presidency. The country was moving in that direction even before he was sworn in, notably with the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. But Bush’s presidency solidified those differences, which have become even more deeply etched in the years since.
As the current and former presidents and their spouses sat onstage together, it was impossible not to recall the degree to which the Bush and Clinton families have defined the politics of the past three decades, or to think about what impact they could have on the future.
The recession that hit during the elder Bush’s presidency made Clinton’s presidency possible. George W. Bush redeemed his father’s loss in a race against Clinton’s vice president. Obama’s presidency was made possible in part by revulsion against Bush’s presidency and the Iraq war — which Hillary Rodham Clinton, who just stepped down as Obama’s secretary of state, voted to authorize as a senator.
Now Hillary Clinton is the early favorite of Democrats to lead their party in 2016. Former Florida governor Jeb Bush, the 43rd president’s brother, is looking at running for the Republican nomination. Bill Clinton is encouraging his wife to run. George W. Bush has said he hopes his brother will do so. But Barbara Bush told NBC’s Matt Lauer on Thursday that she hopes Jeb doesn’t run. “We’ve had enough Bushes,” she said.
Jeb Bush and the voters will decide that, but there is little doubt that if he were to run, his brother’s legacy would affect his chances, just as Obama’s and Bill Clinton’s would affect Hillary Clinton. So while Thursday was mostly about looking back, it also was a reminder that past can be prologue.