LITTLE ROCK, Nov. 18 -- Bill Clinton was joined by three fellow presidents Thursday on a rain-pelted stage by the Arkansas River for the dedication of his presidential library, an event that hailed the 42nd president as a rare political talent with a gift for human connection and an unerring instinct for survival.
The controversies of Clinton's tumultuous eight-year tenure, as well as the acrimony of the recent presidential election, gave way to repeated appeals for national unity. President Bush spoke to an audience that included the Democrats he defeated in two campaigns, former vice president Al Gore and Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.). Clinton also heard himself hailed as an American original by predecessors George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, both men with whom he has had long and often fractious relationships.
The dedication of the $165 million library and exhibition -- designed to evoke a "Bridge to the 21st Century," the metaphor Clinton invoked with merciless repetition during his 1996 reelection drive -- gave Clinton occasion to frame his presidential legacy as he sees it. He said he became president in 1993 when "the world was a new and very different place" in the Cold War's wake, and credited himself with forging a new blend of conservative and liberal ideas about education, welfare and national security that helped America make the transition.
The diverse uproars of the Clinton years -- impeachment, a sex scandal, and recriminations over such topics as fundraising and presidential pardons -- did not get mention in the ceremony, but they do get attention in the giant library that as of Thursday belongs to the National Archives. In exhibits that Clinton and his most loyal aides were intimately involved in crafting, he presents an argument that he was the subject of a partisan vendetta and a "Fight for Power" led by then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and his fellow right-wing Republicans.
In many ways, the library is a glass-and-steel version of Clinton's memoir, "My Life," which similarly revealed the grievance against Republicans that remains raw with Clinton and presents his view that he was a victim of "the politics of personal destruction." As recently as this week, in an interview with ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, Clinton grew impassioned in his complaints about Whitewater independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr.
While these receding controversies remain vivid to Clinton -- and to some placard-carrying protesters who appeared on the streets of Little Rock this week -- they were obscured by billowy clouds of nostalgia and good cheer at the ceremony. Presidential library dedications are joined by state funeral as events with special ability to bring together past and present leaders, creating a tableau of history, power, and complex personal relationships with interwoven strands of intense competition and shared experience. The elder Bush spoke of "an inescapable bond" among people who have been president, while Carter similarly invoked a "special tie that binds" even former adversaries.
Carter also congratulated Bush on his reelection victory, three months after excoriating him at the Democratic National Convention as a unprincipled leader who had initiated a "war of choice" in Iraq.
Clinton, thin after his heart surgery in September, said the nation urgently needs reconciliation and a less divisive brand of politics. "It bothers me when America gets as divided as it was," he said. "I once said to a friend of mine about three days before the election -- and I heard all these terrible things. I said, you know, am I the only person in the entire United States of America who likes both George Bush and John Kerry, who believes they're both good people, who believes they both love our country and they just see the world differently?"
Clinton also urged Bush to pursue opportunities for a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, a goal that Clinton pursued intensely but that remained just beyond grasp until the closing hours of his presidency.
"Mr. President, again I say, I hope you get to cross over into the promised land of Middle East peace," Clinton said. "We have a good opportunity, and we are all praying for you."
The ceremony's undercurrent of reconciliation carried over to Clinton's own relationships.
Carter recalled that he first met a 28-year-old Clinton three decades ago, when two future presidents met during a Carter trip to Arkansas while Clinton was making an unsuccessful run for Congress. The 39th president, who on earlier occasions has sharply criticized Clinton's behavior in the Monica S. Lewinsky scandal, also made a joking reference to a subject that was once no laughing matter. In 1980, the Carter administration placed Cuban refugees in a prison in Arkansas; when the refugees rioted, it caused controversy that contributed heavily to Clinton's failure to win reelection after his first term as governor.
George H.W. Bush said during the 2000 campaign that he was trying to restrain himself from talking about Clinton and telling "the nation what I think of him as a human being and a person." On Thursday in Little Rock, he toasted a man he acknowledged is a far superior politician to him -- a lesson he "learned the hard way."
"Here in Arkansas you might say he grew to become the Sam Walton of national retail politics," the 41st president said, referring to the Arkansas-born founder of Wal-Mart. "Simply put, he was a natural, and he made it look too easy. And, oh, how I hated him for that."