DALLAS — Former President George W. Bush was hailed as a leader of courage, resolve and compassion here Thursday as all the living U.S. presidents and dignitaries from around the world gathered to dedicate the Bush Library and Museum.
President Barack Obama led the tributes, calling Bush “a good man” who showed strong leadership in the days after the nation was attacked by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.
“As we walk through this library,” he said, “obviously we’re 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 had sought to destroy our way of life.”
As is customary when the presidents come together to honor one another, the emphasis was on the positive. Missing Thursday were any direct references to the controversies than engulfed Bush’s eight tumultuous years in office, including his decision to invade Iraq, his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial collapse that occurred on his watch.
Obama and others pointed to Bush’s initiative to combat HIV/AIDs in Africa, his education reforms and his unsuccessful effort to reform the nation’s immigration system, which is back on the congressional agenda for the first time since he left office.
When it was his turn to speak, Bush opened by saying, “Oh happy day.” He joked that there was a time in his life when he “wouldn’t have been found at a library, much less found one.”
But toward the end he turned serious: “When our freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep people safe.” He said the library would reflect that he stayed true to his principles and values as he made decisions throughout his presidency.
Bush came as close as anyone in acknowledging that his presidency was often engulfed in controversy. He noted that one principle of a free people is the right of citizens to disagree with each other and their leaders.
“I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right,” he said.
Bush laughed and smiled as others spoke, or as he shared an aside with his father, former President George H.W. Bush. But as he finished his remarks, his voice was choked with emotion, and he wiped away a tear when he returned to his seat on the plaza outside the library’s entrance.
Bush’s father, who was in a wheelchair, spoke only briefly, thanking those in attendance for being there. After he finished, he rose from the chair, aided by his son and wife Barbara, to smile and wave to the audience of Bush friends, relatives, supporters and former administration officials.
Former President Bill Clinton, who has developed a warm relationship with both the 43rd president and his father, cited Bush’s work in Africa and his support for comprehensive immigration reform. He said he hoped Congress would “follow the example you set” and pass legislation this year.
Clinton joked about the newest facility in the presidential library system, calling it the “latest, grandest example of former presidents to rewrite history.”
Former President Jimmy Carter thanked Bush for helping to end civil war in Sudan and praised him for his work in Africa on behalf of “the most needy people on earth.”
Obama made an explicit appeal for Congress to pass immigration reform, saying he was hopeful that with the help of House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, who was in the audience, the legislation would reach his desk sometime this year.
“And if we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush,” Obama said.
Since leaving office four years ago, Bush has maintained a low profile, declining to insert himself into public and political debates and avoiding any comment about Obama’s policies or the state of his own Republican Party.
The dedication of his library has pushed him and his presidency back into the public spotlight. Before Thursday’s ceremonies, Bush did a round of interviews in which he said repeatedly that he is confident of the decisions he made and content to let history judge him in the end.
Last week’s Boston Marathon bombings have refocused attention on the decisions Bush made after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the day that changed his presidency. Bush talked about the impact of those attacks in an interview Thursday morning with NBC’s Matt Lauer.
He said that at the moment he was told about the attacks, while reading to schoolchildren in Florida, he became a wartime president, “something I didn’t want to be.” From that day forward, he said, “my job became clarified … and that is to protect the homeland.”
Those events are highlighted in the museum, as are the decisions that flowed from them, including wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Obama offered a preview of Thursday’s remarks when he spoke Wednesday night at a Democratic fundraiser in Dallas.
“President Bush loves this country and loves its people and shares that same concern, and was concerned about all people in America, not just those who voted Republican,” he said.
Bush has generally refrained from talking about politics this week, other than to say he hopes his brother Jeb, the former governor of Florida, runs for president in 2016. In an interview with Fox News anchor Bret Baier, Bush did talk about the state of the Republican Party.
“We’re leaderless now, [the] Republican Party is leaderless, not for the first time, nor will be the last time. We’re in the wilderness,” he said. “Pretty soon our party will coalesce around a leader. I wish his name was Jeb.”
But Jeb Bush’s mother, Barbara Bush, offered a contrary opinion in her own interview with Lauer.
“We’ve had enough Bushes,” she said.
Jeb Bush was in the audience, as was Hillary Rodham Clinton, prompting plenty of talk about the possibility of a Bush-Clinton contest in 2016.
The museum recalls all the controversies of the 43rd president’s eight years in power.
But the facility also gives ample space to many other aspects of Bush’s presidency, from passage of the No Child Left Behind Act and the prescription drug benefit to his advocacy of comprehensive immigration reform and his initiative to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, which the former president and his advisers see as important parts of his legacy.