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."
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.