HOUSTON—In a rare meeting of what’s been described as the most exclusive club in the world, all five living American presidents gathered in Dallas Thursday for the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
A crowd of thousands of invited spectators witnessed the historic ceremony in which presidents of the past and present set aside the controversies that divided the nation during the Bush presidency and praised him for his handling of everything from the war on terror to a civil war in the Sudan.
“To know the man is to like the man, because he’s comfortable in his own skin,” said President Barack Obama. “He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
But Bush himself choked up and wiped tears from his eyes as he finished his speech to the crowd and stepped away from the presidential podium.
“I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in the future of our country,” Bush said. “It’s the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States. Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead.”
Dozens of foreign leaders of the past and present, including former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, bore witness to the bipartisan praise echoing through the ceremony.
“That’s one of those times in American politics when politics can be shunned to the side, when we can all come together and really celebrate not only the institution of the presidency, but also celebrate the sheer power of democracy,” said Dr. Jeffery Engel of the SMU Center for Presidential History.
The five commanders-in-chief who gathered in Dallas – Obama, the Bush father and son presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter – all spoke briefly at the ceremony. The most poignant moment came when Bush 41, sitting in a wheelchair and sounding frail, spoke for less than 30 seconds. The crowd gave him a standing ovation that lasted longer than his speech.
The newly constructed George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, a monument to the tumultuous tenure of the nation’s 43rd commander in chief, sits on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Television news clips, interactive screens and iconic artifacts trace the story of Bush’s presidency, from the disputed election settled by a historic Supreme Court decision to his final days in the White House.
Beyond question, the most powerful part of the museum is the display on the 9/11 terrorist attacks. With one abrupt and unheralded turn, visitors enter a darkened room filled with chilling reminders of what the museum calls the “Day of Fire.”
“George walked a family through recently and realized that the children who were on the tour with him weren’t alive on September 11th,” said former first lady Laura Bush. “So they had no direct memory of it like all of us do. And it’s important, I think, to remind people of it.”
A twisted steel girder from one of the doomed World Trade Center buildings stands in the middle of the exhibit. Also on display is the bullhorn the president borrowed to speak as he stood amid the wreckage at Ground Zero, vowing that the terrorists who plotted the attack would soon hear back from the United States.
“As we walk through this library, obviously we are 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 would destroy our way of life,” Obama said.
Longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes recently recalled that she was standing just a few feet away from the president when he made his impromptu remarks at Ground Zero. Hughes remembers saying aloud, “That’s going to be in his library someday.”
Visitors also walk through a timeline of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, arguing the case against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. And although the exhibit clearly makes the former president’s case, it also acknowledges the controversy over the justification for the war by pointing out that no weapons of mass destruction were ever found in Iraq.
Another exhibit features former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice speaking in a video about why the administration thought it was necessary to create the prison in Guantanamo and use enhanced interrogation techniques that critics decried as torture.
Just like many other presidential libraries, the Bush museum features a full scale replica of the Oval Office. Unlike other libraries, the Bush museum’s Oval Office leads outside to an actual rose garden. The center also features a 15-acre park resembling a Texas prairie.
One unique aspect of the museum: Bronze statues of Bush 41 and 43, father and son presidents, standing side by side.
Among the more personal items on display are bronze statues of the Bush’s pets, as well as a ball that looks like it got way too much attention from Barney, the president’s dog. A display of baseballs reflects the president’s former career as an owner of the Texas Rangers.
Friends of the former president hope the museum will convey a more accurate impression of the man they know.
“When you become president and first lady and you’re in everybody’s living room for eight years, you become sort of a caricatured celebrity, not really a real person,” said Mark Langdale, a longtime neighbor of the president who now heads the George Bush Foundation. “And I think it’s important, when people go through this museum experience, that we crack that.”
The new complex at SMU, which opens to the public next month, becomes the third presidential library in Texas. Lyndon B. Johnson’s library at the University of Texas was the first, followed by the George H.W. Bush library at Texas A&M.
With the dedication of this newest museum, Texas becomes the only state in the nation serving as home to three presidential libraries.