As is customary when the presidents come together to honor one another, the emphasis was on the positive. Missing Thursday were any direct references to the controversies than engulfed Bush’s eight tumultuous years in office, including his decision to invade Iraq, his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial collapse that occurred on his watch.
Obama and others pointed to Bush’s initiative to combat HIV/AIDs in Africa, his education reforms and his unsuccessful effort to reform the nation’s immigration system, which is back on the congressional agenda for the first time since he left office.
When it was his turn to speak, Bush opened by saying, “Oh happy day.” He joked that there was a time in his life when he “wouldn’t have been found at a library, much less found one.”
But toward the end he turned serious: “When our freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep people safe.” He said the library would reflect that he stayed true to his principles and values as he made decisions throughout his presidency.
Bush came as close to anyone in acknowledging that his presidency was often engulfed in controversy. He noted that one principle of a free people is the right of citizens to disagree with each other and their leaders. “I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right,” he said.
Bush laughed and smiled as others spoke, or as he shared an aside with his father, former president George H.W. Bush. But as he finished his remarks, his voice was choked with emotion, and he wiped away a tear when he returned to his seat on the plaza outside the library’s entrance.
Bush’s father, who was in a wheelchair, spoke only briefly, thanking those in attendance for being there. After he finished, he rose from the chair, aided by his son and wife Barbara, to smile and wave to the audience of Bush friends, relatives, supporters and former administration officials.
Former president Bill Clinton, who has developed a warm relationship with both the 43rd president and his father, cited Bush’s work in Africa and his support for comprehensive immigration reform. He said he hoped Congress would “follow the example you set” and pass legislation this year.
Clinton joked about the newest facility in the presidential library system, calling it the “latest, grandest example of former presidents to rewrite history.”