The current president expressed the grudging admiration that many Republicans hold in retrospect for a survivor who often bested them in the political wars. "The president is not the kind to give up a fight," Bush said. "His staffers were known to say, 'If Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would sink.' " Gerald R. Ford was the only living ex-president not in attendance; at 91 he was not feeling well enough to attend, Clinton said.
The dedication ceremony was characteristic of an administration that often merged celebrity and showmanship with statecraft. Among those who traveled to Little Rock were former Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres, as well as Clinton friend Barbra Streisand and fellow Hollywood personalities Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams. Among the performers at the dedication were rock musicians Bono and The Edge of U2. The crowd had originally been estimated at 30,000, but this number dwindled as the less hardy lost patience for huddling under ponchos and umbrellas for several hours in what was at best a drizzle and on occasion turned into a cold downpour. Even many Clinton aides took flight.
Those who did stay heard Clinton in a ruminative mood. He said he grew up among smart but uneducated people listening to stories and suggested that this experience gave him an appreciation of the concrete human dimension of governing. "They taught me that everyone has a story," he said. "And that made politics intensely personal to me. It was about giving people better stories."
The dedication ceremony included half a dozen personal testimonials, including from a former welfare recipient who praised Clinton's longtime support for changes in the welfare system, capped by his 1996 signing of a GOP-drafted plan overhauling and imposing time limits on aid to the poor.
Clinton offered a new formulation about his political philosophy, saying he tried to synthesize "two great dominant strands of political thought" in American history. Conservatives, he said, are focused on drawing "lines that should not be crossed" to preserve important values, while "progressives" value breaking "down barriers that are no longer needed or should never have been erected in the first place." He said conservatives were right about the importance of fiscal restraint and personal responsibility among families, while progressives were right about expanding educational opportunity and becoming engaged with the problems of a diverse planet.
The dedication and the library suggested the historical argument that is likely to echo -- and remain unresolved -- for decades about Clinton: whether he should be recalled as an innovator who understood the changing character of his times or as a man who squandered his abilities through personal weakness.
Already much of the attention devoted to the new library has focused on an alcove dealing with impeachment, in which Clinton gives a slight nod to the origins of the episode -- his affair with former intern Lewinsky and false statements he gave under oath in legal proceedings -- and focuses on what he called the illegitimate pursuit of him by Republicans.
The exhibit, which aides said was edited by senior Clinton advisers Bruce R. Lindsey and John D. Podesta and reviewed by Clinton, declares: "The impeachment battle was not about the Constitution or the rule of law, but was instead a quest for power that the president's opponents could not win at the ballot box." It goes on to talk about corners of the scandal that are familiar mostly to Whitewater devotees on both sides, such as the "Arkansas Project," aimed at uncovering embarrassing Clinton stories and funded by billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife, and it quotes Gingrich as saying that Republicans impeached Clinton "because we can."
Other parts of the library feature a mix of policy and celebrity. There are letters on display from such wide-ranging figures as Mother Teresa, historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and singers Sheryl Crow and Elton John.
All of Clinton's immediate family took part in the proceedings. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced her husband, and their daughter, Chelsea -- who speaks publicly so rarely that her voice is unfamiliar to the general public -- came to the lectern to present the key to the library to John W. Carlin, archivist of the United States.