Joined by President Bush and other dignitaries, former president Bill Clinton dedicated his presidential library today with an appeal for national unity in a ceremony attended by about 30,000 people in his home state of Arkansas.
"We all do better when we work together," Clinton said toward the end of a 20-minute speech in Little Rock after remarks by Bush and former presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. "Our differences do matter, but our common humanity matters more."
Bill Clinton is accompanied by President Bush and former presidents at the start of the dedication ceremony for the Clinton's library in Little Rock.
(Jason Reed - Reuters)
Clinton also urged the current president to seize the opportunity to promote Middle East peace, a goal Clinton said he tried hard to achieve during his eight years in office.
It was a rare gathering, under gray skies and a steady rain, of current and former U.S. leaders, members of Congress, foreign dignitaries, rock musicians, Hollywood stars and thousands of other people. In addition to Bush and first lady Laura Bush, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, the president's Democratic opponent in the Nov. 2 election, was on hand, as was former vice president Al Gore, who ran against Bush in 2000.
The gathering included all the surviving ex-presidents except Gerald Ford, 91, who was not feeling well enough to attend.
Before Clinton was introduced by his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), President Bush praised his predecessor's leadership, saying he had inspired people at home and abroad.
"President Clinton led our country with optimism and a great affection for the American people, and that affection has been returned," Bush said. He hailed Clinton as "an innovator, a serious student of policy and a man of great compassion" who, during his term, became a "tireless champion of peace in the Middle East," halted ethnic cleansing in the Balkans and demonstrated "deep empathy for the poor and the powerless."
Bush said the new library "is a gift to the future by a man who always believed in the future, and today we thank him for loving and serving America."
Before the speeches, Clinton, Carter, President Bush and his father were announced together and walked four abreast to the stage to join their spouses and other family members as the dedication ceremonies began.
Clinton, 58, looked gaunt as he sat holding an umbrella barely two months after undergoing emergency quadruple bypass heart surgery. His wife and their 24-year-old daughter, Chelsea, sat with him as they listened to the speeches and to performances by musical acts including Bono.
Striking a common theme in his brief remarks, Carter said, "At the end of a very difficult political year -- more difficult for some of us than others -- it is valuable for the world to see two Democrats and two Republicans assembled together, all honoring the great nation that has permitted us to serve."
Former president Bush, who lost his reelection bid to Clinton in 1992, said he learned the hard way that his opponent "was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times." On the campaign trail, Clinton "was a natural and he made it look too easy," the former president said to laughter from the audience. "And, oh, how I hated him for that!"
He said Clinton also "enjoyed debates too much for my taste."
In his own laudatory remarks, President Bush also paid tribute to Clinton's political skills, quoting an Arkansas supporter's explanation to his son of why he liked the then-governor so much. "He said, 'Son, he'll look you in the eye, he'll shake your hand, he'll hold your baby, he'll pet your dog -- all at the same time,' " Bush said.