Obama, ex-presidents gather to dedicate George W. Bush Library

An emotional President George W. Bush called his presidency “an honor of a lifetime” at the dedication of his presidential library Thursday in Dallas, Texas. (The Washington Post)
April 25, 2013

Former president George W. Bush was hailed as a leader of courage, resolve and compassion here Thursday as all the living U.S. presidents and dignitaries from around the world gathered to dedicate the Bush Library and Museum.

President Obama led the tributes, calling Bush “a good man” who showed strong leadership in the days after the nation was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001. “As we walk through this library,” he said, “obviously we’re reminded of the incredible strength and resolve that came through that bullhorn as he stood amid the rubble and the ruins of Ground Zero, promising to deliver justice to those who had sought to destroy our way of life.”

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.”

Former president Jimmy Carter thanked Bush for helping to end civil war in Sudan and praised him for his work in Africa on behalf of “the most needy people on earth.”

Obama made an explicit appeal for Congress to pass immigration reform, saying he was hopeful that with the help of House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who was in the audience, the legislation would reach his desk sometime this year. “And if we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush.”

Since leaving office four years ago, Bush has maintained a low profile, declining to insert himself into public and political debates and avoiding any comment about Obama’s policies or the state of his own Republican Party.

The dedication of his library has pushed him and his presidency back into the public spotlight. Before Thursday’s ceremonies, Bush did a round of interviews in which he said repeatedly that he is confident of the decisions he made and content to let history judge him in the end.

Last week’s Boston Marathon bombings have refocused attention on the decisions Bush made after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the day that changed his presidency. Bush talked about the impact of those attacks in an interview Thursday morning with NBC’s Matt Lauer.

He said that at the moment he was told about the attacks, while reading to schoolchildren in Florida, he became a wartime president, “something I didn’t want to be.” From that day forward, he said, “my job became clarified ... and that is to protect the homeland.”

Those events are highlighted in the museum, as are the decisions that flowed from them, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Obama offered a preview of Thursday’s remarks when he spoke Wednesday night at a Democratic fundraiser in Dallas. “President Bush loves this country and loves its people and shares that same concern, and was concerned about all people in America, not just those who voted Republican,” he said.

Bush has generally refrained from talking about politics this week, other than to say he hopes his brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, runs for president in 2016. In an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, Bush did talk about the state of the Republican Party.

“We’re leaderless now, [the] Republican Party is leaderless, not for the first time, nor will be the last time. We’re in the wilderness,” he said. “Pretty soon our party will coalesce around a leader. I wish his name was Jeb.”

But Bush’s mother, Barbara Bush, offered a contrary opinion in her own interview with Lauer. “We’ve had enough Bushes,” she said.

Jeb Bush was in the audience, as was Hillary Rodham Clinton, prompting plenty of talk about the possibility of a Bush-Clinton contest in 2016.

The museum recalls all the controversies of the 43rd president’s eight years in power.

But the facility also gives ample space to many other aspects of Bush’s presidency, from passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and the prescription drug benefit to his advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform and his initiative to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, which the former president and his advisers see as important parts of his legacy.

There are twisted girders from the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, the bullhorn he used from atop the pile of rubble at Ground Zero in New York, an exact replica of his Oval Office and, yes, even his personal collection of signed baseballs.

“One of the instructions that he always gave throughout was that this museum is not a monument to him, but a monument to principles that brought him into public office. And that’s what inspired him, and that’s what still inspires him,” said Brendan Miniter, senior editorial director at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

The attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, transformed Bush’s presidency, and if there is a core of the museum, it is the section dealing with that day and its aftermath. The girders from the World Trade Center provide the most arresting symbol of the attacks, while video displays show footage of the most horrific moments. The names of the approximately 3,000 people who died at the trade center, the Pentagon or on the hijacked planes are listed on the same wall.

That gives way to another set of displays under the heading “Defending Freedom,” which encompasses the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other policies the administration said were aimed at combating terrorism. A map of the world highlights where many other acts of terrorism have occurred.

A large interactive table — evidence that this museum was built in the digital age — allows visitors to see more details and documents about Iraq and Afghanistan. Nearby, a short video narrated by former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice explains the decision to invade Iraq and acknowledges that no weapons of mass destruction were found there.

Bush recently told the Dallas Morning News, “Much of my presidency was defined by things that you didn’t necessarily want to have happen.” The museum provides an opportunity to revisit some of the decisions he made in response to those events and even to disagree with his actions.

The Decision Points Theater focuses on four key moments of the Bush presidency: the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the decision announced in January 2007 to send an additional 30,000 troops to that country (known as the troop surge); the administration’s heavily criticized response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005; and the decision to bail out the banks after the financial collapse in the fall of 2008.

The theater puts visitors in front of their own terminals, where former White House chiefs of staff Andrew H. Card Jr. and Joshua B. Bolten narrate a presentation about the policy choices Bush faced during those events. As visitors weigh the options, breaking-news alerts interrupt them, aimed at heightening the pressure and complicating the decision making process. Visitors vote on their preferred response to each situation, and then Bush offers his explanation of what action he took and why.

The museum is part of the 226,000-square-foot George W. Bush Presidential Center, which houses two brick-and-Texas-limestone buildings constructed almost as one. One building contains the library and museum, which will be under the control of the National Archives and Records Administration. The other is home to the George W. Bush Institute, a think tank that carries on work that Bush began in office.

Designed by Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, the complex sits on 23 acres on the SMU campus and includes 15 acres of grounds planted with native Texas trees, wildflowers and grasses. The buildings have received a LEED platinum certification for energy efficiency and sustainable development.

The Bush archives include more than 70 million pages of paper records, 200 million e-mails and 4 million digital photographs, according to a fact sheet from the Bush Center. There are roughly 80 terabytes of digital material overall.

The first of the president’s papers will be released early next year, but the bulk of his presidential record will not be available for a decade or more because of federal statutes governing presidential papers and time needed to process the huge amount of material.

The museum takes visitors through all aspects of Bush’s life and presidency, beginning in West Texas, where he was raised. One of the first visuals visitors will see is a wall-size photograph of the Texas night sky taken at the Bush ranch in Crawford, which served as a kind of summer White House when he was in office.

Visitors then move on to the 2000 election, which features videos from election night as Bush was declared, and then undeclared, the winner when the vote count in Florida narrowed dramatically.

The displays include a butterfly ballot from Palm Beach County, Fla., which caused confusion among many voters on Election Day 2000, as well as a small quilt that is designed with replicas of newspaper front pages chronicling the recount.

The presidency that Bush had hoped for when he was inaugurated is the theme of the next section: the tax cuts he enacted, most of which were just made permanent at the end of last year; the education reform bill he passed with the help of the late senator Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.); and his faith-based initiative — all of which occurred in the first eight months he was in office.

Once past the section that covers Sept. 11, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the fight against terrorism, less-controversial Bush initiatives — including the effort to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa — come into focus.

One feature likely to be popular is the replica of Bush’s Oval Office. Museum designers have been sticklers in trying to make the exhibit as exact as possible, down to its siting with the back windows facing south. Visitors will be able to walk into the Oval Office and be photographed behind the presidential desk.

Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, described the opening of the library and museum as the part of the birth of the historic perspective on this president that he said started with Bush’s 2010 memoir. He said the former president and first lady Laura Bush were heavily involved in architectural decisions, as well as in how the story of the presidency is told in the museum.

“Historians will start adding other points of view and doing what happens over time,” Langdale said. “But this is a reflection of what [the Bushes] think is important about what happened in their service.”

Karen Hughes, who served as counselor to Bush in the White House, said visitors will gain a sense “of the principles and values” that guided Bush in office. “He told the designer that he wanted to present the facts . . . and let people draw their own conclusions.”

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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