Coverage of the development and dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the SMU campus.

Presidents Past and Present Honor Bush At Library Dedication

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    NEWSLETTERS

    All the living American presidents past and present gathered in Dallas Thursday, a rare reunion to salute one of their own at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

    Profound ideological differences and a bitter history of blaming each other for the nation's woes will give way -- if just for a day -- to pomp and pleasantries Thursday as the five members of the most exclusive club in the world appear publicly together for the first time in years.

    "There was a time in my life I wasn't likely to be found at a library, let alone founded one," Bush said. "For eight years, you gave me the honor of serving as your president. I'm honored to dedicate this library to the American people.

    "When future generations come to this library and study this administration, they're going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions. When our freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe."

    Bush was particularly thankful that his parents -- including former President George H.W. Bush -- were there.

    "This is the first time in American history that parents have seen their son's presidential library," George W. Bush said. "Mother, I promise to keep my area clean.

    "Dad taught me how be a president, and before that, he taught me how to be a man, and 41, it is awesome that you are here today."

    For the younger Bush, 66, the ceremony also marks his unofficial return to the public eye four years after the end of his deeply polarizing presidency.

    On the sprawling, 23-acre university campus north of downtown Dallas housing his presidential library, museum and policy institute, Bush was honored by the two surviving Democratic presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. President Barack Obama, fresh off a fundraiser for Democrats the night before, also spoke.

    "This is a Texas-sized party, and that's worthy of what we're here to do today: honor the life and legacy of the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush," Obama said, when he took the stage in Dallas Thursday morning to honor the former president.

    In a reminder of his duties as the current Oval Office inhabitant, Obama will travel to Waco in the afternoon for a memorial for victims of last week's deadly fertilizer plant explosion.

    Key moments and themes from Bush's presidency -- the harrowing, the controversial and the inspiring -- weren't far removed from the minds of the presidents and guests assembled to dedicate the center, where interactive exhibits invite scrutiny of Bush's major choices as president, such as the financial bailout, the Iraq War and the international focus on HIV and AIDS.

    On display is the bullhorn that Bush, near the start of his presidency, used to punctuate the chaos at ground zero three days after 9/11. Addressing a crowd of rescue workers amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, Bush said: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

    "Memories are fading rapidly, and the profound impact of that attack is becoming dim with time," Bush told The Associated Press earlier this month. "We want to make sure people remember not only the lives lost and the courage shown, but the lesson that the human condition overseas matters to the national security of our country."

    More than 70 million pages of paper records. Two hundred million emails. Four million digital photos. About 43,000 artifacts. Bush's library features the largest digital holdings of any of the 13 presidential libraries under the auspices of the National Archives and Records Administration, officials said. Situated in a 15-acre urban park at Southern Methodist University, the center includes 226,000 square feet of indoor space.

    A full-scale replica of the Oval Office as it looked during Bush's tenure sits on the campus, as does a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. In the museum, visitors can gaze at a container of chads -- the remnants of the famous Florida punch card ballots that played a pivotal role in the contested 2000 election that sent Bush to Washington.

    Take a look inside the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Center in this gallery.

    Former first lady Laura Bush led the design committee, officials said, with a keen eye toward ensuring that her family's Texas roots were conspicuously reflected. Architects used local materials, including Texas Cordova cream limestone and trees from the central part of the state, in its construction.

    The public look back on the tenure of the nation's 43rd president comes as Bush is undergoing a coming-out of sorts after years spent in relative seclusion, away from the prying eyes of cameras and reporters that characterized his two terms in the White House and his years in the Texas governor's mansion before that. As the library's opening approached, Bush and his wife embarked on a round-robin of interviews with all the major television networks, likely aware that history's appraisal of his legacy and years in office will soon be solidifying.

    An erroneous conclusion that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, a bungling of the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina and a national debt that grew much larger under his watch stain the memory of his presidency for many, including Obama, who won two terms in the White House after lambasting the choices of its previous resident. But on Wednesday, Obama staunchly defended Bush's commitment to the America's well-being while addressing Democratic donors.

    "Whatever our political differences, President Bush loves this country and loves his people and shared that same concern, and is concerned about all people in America," Obama said. "Not just some. Not just those who voted Republican."

    There's at least some evidence that Americans are warming to Bush's presidency four years after he returned to his ranch in Crawford, even if they still question his judgment on Iraq and other issues. While Bush left office with an approval rating of 33 percent, that figure has climbed to 47 percent -- about equal to Obama's own approval rating, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released ahead of the library opening.

    Bush pushed forcefully but unsuccessfully for the type of sweeping immigration overhaul that Congress, with Obama's blessing, is now pursuing. And his aggressive approach to counterterrorism may be viewed with different eyes as the U.S. continues to be touched by acts of terrorism.

    Although museums and libraries, by their nature, look back on history, the dedication of Bush's library also offers a few hints about the future, with much of the nation's top political brass gathered in the same state. Clinton's wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, stoked speculation about her own political future Wednesday in a Dallas suburb when she delivered her first paid speech since stepping down as secretary of state earlier this year. And Bush talked up the presidential prospects of his brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, in an interview that aired Wednesday on ABC.

    "He doesn't need my counsel, because he knows what it is, which is, `Run,"' Bush said.

    However, former first lady Barbara Bush is brushing aside talk of a Jeb Bush run for the White House.

    Appearing in an interview Thursday on NBC's "Today" show, Mrs. Bush was asked how she felt about Jeb, the former governor of Florida, seeking the presidency in 2016.

    "We've had enough Bushes," she said.

    She still called her son "by far the best-qualified man," but went on to say she thought there were many worthy candidates.

    Obama, too, may have his own legacy in mind. He's just a few years out from making his own decision about where to house his presidential library and the monument to his legacy.

    Follow us on Twitter and see updates on the #BushCenter dedication


    George W. Bush Presidential Center
    Complete coverage of the development and dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center on the campus of Southern Methodist University. All living American presidents are expected to attend the event. Click here for more.