By Jamie Stengle and Josh Lederman
DALLAS — Presidents past and present lionized one of their own Thursday, putting politics aside as President George W. Bush dedicated the library that documents his place in history. President Barack Obama praised his predecessor's strength and resolve after Sept. 11, calling Bush a "good man" who faced the storm head on.
"My deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom," Bush said. "I believe that freedom is a gift from God and the hope of every human heart."
Obama and Bush spoke along with the three other living former presidents in a rare reunion at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. "To know President George W. Bush is to like him," Obama said.
The presidents lauded Bush's aid to the people of Africa, his effort to reach across the aisle on issues like immigration and education and his leadership in the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks. But they avoided the two wars that dominated much of his time in office — Iraq and Afghanistan.
The presidents — Obama, Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter — were cheered by a crowd of former White House officials and world leaders as they took the stage together to open the dedication. They were joined on stage by their wives — the nation's current and former first ladies — for the outdoor ceremony on a sun-splashed Texas morning. For Bush, 66, the ceremony also marked his unofficial return to the public eye four years after the end of his deeply polarizing presidency.
The five men have been described as members of the world's most exclusive club, but Obama said they are "more like a support group."
"Being president above all is a humbling job," Obama said. He said there were moments that they make mistakes and wish they could turn back the clock, but "we love this country and we do our best."
In a reminder of his duties as the current Oval Office inhabitant, Obama planned to travel to Waco in the afternoon for a memorial for victims of last week's deadly fertilizer plant explosion.
Obama praised Bush for pushing to reform the country's immigration system, although Congress never agreed to go along during Bush's time in office. Obama said he hopes they will this year. "And if we do that it will be in large part thanks for the hard work of President George W. Bush," Obama said.
President George H.W. Bush, who has been hospitalized recently for bronchitis, spoke haltingly for just about 30 seconds while seated in his wheelchair, thanking guests for coming out to support his son. A standing ovation lasted nearly as long as his comments, and his son and wife helped him to his feet to recognize the applause.
Clinton, too, was warmly received by the heavily Republican crowd, who applauded and laughed along with his joke-peppered speech. He concluded on a serious note about the importance of the leaders coming together. "Debate and difference is an important part of every free society," Clinton said.
President Jimmy Carter praised Bush for his role in helping secure peace between North and South Sudan in 2005 and his approval of expanded aid to the nations of Africa. "Mr. President let me say that I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you've made to the most needy people on earth," Carter said.
Former first lady Laura Bush said the library isn't just about her husband, but reflects the world during his time as the first president as the 21st century. "Here we remember the heartbreak and heroism of Sept. 11 and the bravery of those who answered the call to defend our country," she said.
Presidential politics also hung over the event. Ahead of the ceremony, former first lady Barbara Bush made waves by brushing aside talk of her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, running for the White House in 2016.
"We've had enough Bushes," said Mrs. Bush, the wife of George H.W. Bush and mother of George W. Bush. She spoke in an interview with NBC's "Today" show.
Yet George W. Bush talked up the presidential prospects of his brother 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.
Key moments and themes from George W. Bush's presidency — the harrowing, the controversial and the inspiring — would not be 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.
More than 70 million pages of paper records. Two hundred million emails. Four million digital photos. About 43,000 artifacts. Bush's library will feature 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 and the bullhorn that Bush used to punctuate the chaos at ground zero three days after 9/11. 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.
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.
From El Salvador to Ghana, Bush contemporaries and former heads of state made their way to Texas to salute the American leader they served alongside on the world stage. Among the foreign leaders were former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
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 taking form.
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.
There's at least some evidence that Americans are warming to Bush 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.
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.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report.
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