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4-25-2013 - Four former presidents and President Obama participated in the dedication of the George W. Bush Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Video: An emotional President George W. Bush called his presidency “an honor of a lifetime” at the dedication of his presidential library Thursday in Dallas, Texas.
By Dan Balz, Published: April 25
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 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.”
Dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library: Amid tight security and with all the pomp afforded to the nation’s highest office, current and former presidents and dignitaries from around the world gathered here Thursday morning to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
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 to 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.”
In 2007, I had the privilege of becoming the first director of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum. My job was to move Nixon’s presidential materials from the Washington, D.C. area, where they had been kept as federal property because of the Watergate investigation, to California, where Nixon’s friends and supporters had built a private library in 1990. My job involved transforming the once private library, which had a reputation for be ing a national center of Watergate denial, into a public, nonpartisan facility.
Sometime in 2010, I was surprised (and frankly, a little proud) when my boss at the National Archives told me that my name had been invoked in negotiations over the future George W. Bush Presidential Library. Apparently, the George W. Bush Foundation was worried “some future Naftali” would “want to put up a torture exhibit.”
It’s true that I had managed to anger Nixon loyalists. As part of the Nixon Library’s rebranding mission, I had brought in serious critics of the former president—notably Elizabeth Drew and John Dean—to the library and vowed to have an honest exhibit on Watergate. And the Nixonians made their feelings known. In 2009, the private Nixon Foundation sent a letter to every living former president denouncing me personally—“Who is this Naftali,” a puzzled President Bill Clinton is said to have asked, “and why should I care?”—for messing up the library system by trying to achieve nonpartisanship in Yorba Linda. The Bushies were apparently arguing for control of the temporary exhibit gallery to prevent it from being used by a future federal director for an exhibit that might cast Bush 43 in a negative light.
The creation of every new presidential library involves negotiations over an agreement—a treaty—between the federal government and the former president and his representatives. Called a Joint Use Agreement, the contract divides up responsibility for the space at the library between the private presidential foundation, which is usually dedicated to promoting the positive legacy of a president, and the American people. Areas controlled by the private presidential foundation, such as the impressive Air Force One Pavilion at the Reagan Library, can have partisan events such as Republican presidential debates. Those spaces controlled by the National Archives on behalf of the American people, however, are legally mandated to be nonpartisan.
In dealing with the Bush Foundation, the National Archives apparently held the line—as it did with the private Nixon Foundation—and, according to the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum website, all of the galleries that will be dedicated today are indeed controlled by all of us. If the final agreement is anything like the treaty governing the Nixon Library, the National Archives has veto power on your behalf over all exhibits and programs at this new presidential library.
That’s right. Whatever you think of President George W. Bush, you control the Bush Library. And you should, since every year you will spend about $4 million on it—the same amount of public funds spent on every one of the 12 other presidential libraries.
One of the misconceptions about presidential libraries is that they are supposed to be shrines. (Don’t worry if you believe that—many presidential relatives do, too.) But Congress is not interested in creating shrines to the branch of government at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. It is one of the strange outcomes of the separation of powers doctrine that one branch has to pay to archive and display the documents and trinkets of a competing branch. In recent years, Congress has shown its displeasure by trying to narrow the streams of public money that go to presidential libraries. The younger President Bush had to raise a lot more money than his father, not just because construction costs had increased in 15 years, but because Congress expects the friends of presidents to create an endowment to help shoulder the burden of maintaining the buildings forever.
There’s nothing wrong with that necessarily. But in its zeal to reduce the public burden for these libraries, Congress has made them even more vulnerable to presidential friends and family. Unwilling to use public funds for these programs or exhibitions, Congress expects the library’s private presidential partner to foot that bill. The effect is that the National Archives finds itself passing the tin cup to raise money for museums, exhibits, and book talks from groups that are not interested in promoting objectivity.
The National Archives is nonpartisan; it is supposed to act in the spirit of open government and transparency and be a leader in the custodianship of history. Presidential families (though there are notable exceptions like the Truman, Johnson, Ford, and Carter families, and Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg) often oppose nonpartisan programming and have often placed obstacles in the way of releasing materials.
Another misconception is that, like it or not, presidents and their loyalists deserve a watering hole. Since we Americans regularly “throw the bums out,” regardless of ideology, there are almost as many Democratic presidential libraries as Republican ones. So, why not let them be? Democrats can visit the Clinton Library and Republicans the Reagan Library.
I have to admit that this was my view until I ran one. These presidential libraries, however, have an educational mission that is much more important to the country than the reputation of a former president. Depending on the location, these libraries receive between 60,000 and 400,000 visitors a year. And students and teachers around the country use these libraries’ online resources in the classroom. You cannot look at the faces of the kids and their teachers that come to your museum without feeling pangs of regret if what they see is not as accurate and informative as it could be. At the Nixon Library, 12,000 school kids on formal school tours visited each year. Before the National Archives took over in 2007, nearly 200,000 students had been taught that the Democrats used Watergate to overturn the electoral result of 1972 and that Richard Nixon did nothing that presidents before him had not done; the only difference was that he got caught.
Will the George W. Bush Library echo the insecurity of the president’s supporters who worried about letting the National Archives put up a future torture exhibit? The test will not just be the permanent galleries that we get a look at for the first time this week, but the tenor of the programs sponsored by the library. Will the library invite serious writers who opposed the Iraq War in the spirit of the Johnson Library’s invitation to Robert Caro? Will the school tours be run with an educational or a rehabilitative mission for the reputation of the 43rd president? And what about the temporary exhibits sponsored by the library, will they be nonpartisan or just echo chambers for Bush-era White House spin?
The new Bush Library will be as nonpartisan as you want it to be. All of the libraries read the emails, letters, and social media about how they are doing their job and how they could do it better. If you are a teacher, contact the library and see what online materials they have for your students. And if you consider the materials one-sided, let them know. The Bush Library, like all other presidential libraries, will have an education specialist, paid by public funds, whose job will be to foster an inviting, “no-spin” zone. If the public wants serious discussion about No Child Left Behind, the consequences of the Iraq War, or why the government crossed the line and used torture after 9/11, there is no good reason why these discussions cannot occur in the same building as where the documents that explain those policies exist.
Academic historians long ago shifted their focus away from the White House, but for most of us American history is still heavily presidential. What we learn about these outsize individuals marks what we think about ourselves. If children are taught that truth lies solely with the presidents of one stripe or another, that no president did wrong, that all presidents were consistent in what they thought or did, and that history flows from the Oval Office, then we invite a continuation of the toxic national politics that have made this country nearly ungovernable.
JEFFREY BROWN: And now a new library and a legacy on display, as five presidents gathered in Texas.
More than four years after leaving office, George W. Bush returned to the spotlight today. All the living presidents past and present were on hand for the dedication of his presidential library and museum, along with numerous other dignitaries, family and friends.
The 23-acre complex on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas also houses a policy institute. It will hold 70 million pages of paper records, four million digital photographs, and 43,000 artifacts. And as former first lady Laura Bush pointed out, it is designed to engage the public.
LAURA BUSH, Former First Lady: We welcome scholars and students and the community at large to gather here for generations to come. The center is designed to be human in scale, because, like the White House, presidential libraries belong to all Americans.
JEFFREY BROWN: Visitors will see exhibits highlighting key events in Bush's presidency, including the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the financial bailout. A space devoted to the 9/11 attacks has steel beams from the World Trade Center.
As president, of course, Bush's response to those crises provoked strong political divisions, but none of that was in evidence today.
Instead, former President Jimmy Carter praised him for providing humanitarian aid to African nations.
FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Mr. President, let me say that I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you have made to the most needy people on Earth.
JEFFREY BROWN: Bush's father, former President George H.W. Bush, spoke from a wheelchair after a recent lengthy bout with bronchitis.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: What a beautiful day in Dallas. It's a great pleasure to be here to honor our son, our oldest son. And this is very special for Barbara and me. And thank you all for coming. And to all those who made this marvelous museum possible, we thank you, especially. And we're glad to be here. God bless America, and thank you very much.
JEFFREY BROWN: Former President Bill Clinton defeated the elder Bush's bid for reelection in 1992, but they have had warm relations as the years passed.
FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: You know, starting with my work with President George H.W. Bush on the tsunami and the aftermath of Katrina, people began to joke that I was getting so close to the Bush family, I had become the black sheep son.
FORMER PRESIDENT CLINTON: My mother told me not to talk too long today.
And, Barbara, I will not let you down.
JEFFREY BROWN: The former president commended the interactive approach of the Bush center. Some exhibits allow visitors to decide how they would respond in a crisis.
FORMER PRESIDENT CLINTON: Debate and difference is an important part of every free society. By asking us to join him in the decisions he made and inviting us to make different ones if we choose, he has honored that deepest American tradition.
JEFFREY BROWN: And President Obama paid homage to his predecessor by extolling the down-to-earth Bush persona.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To know the man is to like the man, because he's comfortable in his own skin. 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. He is a good man.
JEFFREY BROWN: Politics wasn't entirely absent from the day's proceedings, as the current president pointed to Mr. Bush's own push for immigration reform.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, seven years ago, President Bush restarted an important conversation by speaking with the American people about our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.
And even though comprehensive immigration reform has taken a little longer than any of us expected, I am hopeful that, this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today, that we bring it home. And if we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush.
JEFFREY BROWN: When his turn came, the nation's 43rd president began his remarks by delivering a joke at his own expense.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There was a time in my life when I wasn't likely to be found at a library, much less found one.
JEFFREY BROWN: But in a serious vein, he also reflected on the way he approached his time in office.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The political winds blow left and right. Polls rise and fall. Supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold.
And my deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom.
As president, I tried to act on these principles every day. It wasn't always easy and it certainly wasn't always popular. One of the benefits of freedom is that people can disagree. It's fair to say I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But when future generations come to this library and study this administration, they're going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions.
JEFFREY BROWN: In the end, President Bush gave way to the emotions of the day.
FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in the future of our country. It was 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.
JEFFREY BROWN: The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum cost $250 million dollars to build, raised privately by the Bush Foundation. It will open to the public on May 1st, one of 13 presidential libraries operated under the auspices of the National Archives.
And we look at libraries and legacies now with three historians, Ellen Fitzpatrick of the University of New Hampshire, H.W. Brands from the University of Texas at Austin, and NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss.
Well, Michael, let me start with you and with a general question. What's the purpose of these libraries? How much do they help shape people's views of former presidents?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, the museum part of a library is basically -- and this is true of most of these libraries -- an effort to give you the president's point of view on his own presidency and that of his partisans. So people who come to see those museums, it's stimulating. They learn a lot about the presidency. But I think they all accept that it is almost like walking into the president's own memoir.
The part that is exciting to us historians, of course, is the archive where letters and documents, national security stuff, is opened as time goes on. That's what really moves us to reconsider a president.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen Fitzpatrick, in the specific case of George W. Bush, how fixed do you think is his legacy and what -- what will people be looking at in terms of him when they look at this library?
ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: I think that his legacy is actually very fluid.
And it's poignant that this dedication occurs after this terrible terrorist bombing that just took place in Boston, because his presidency, as the library and museum itself showcases, was deeply affected by the events of September 11th and the terrible tragedy that really overshadowed his presidency.
And, in that sense, I think there's a poignancy to the timing of this dedication. His legacy is unfolding. And I think that in all likelihood over time, as the opinion polls seem to suggest, there will be greater sympathy to the burden that he bore in trying to come to grips with the worst peacetime attack in American history on the homeland.
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Barack Obama’s Remarks at the George W. Bush Library Dedication (Transcript)
Charles Dharapak / AP
Published with permission from the White House Office of the Press Secretary. President Obama spoke from the Bush Presidential Center in Dallas, Texas.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Thank you. Please be seated. To President Bush and Mrs. Bush; to President Clinton and now-former Secretary Clinton; to President George H.W. Bush and Mrs. Bush; to President and Mrs. Carter; to current and former world leaders and all the distinguished guests here today — Michelle and I are honored to be with you to mark this historic occasion.
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.
When all the living former Presidents are together, it’s also a special day for our democracy. We’ve been called “the world’s most exclusive club” — and we do have a pretty nice clubhouse. But the truth is, our club is more like a support group. The last time we all got together was just before I took office. And I needed that. Because as each of these leaders will tell you, no matter how much you may think you’re ready to assume the office of the presidency, it’s impossible to truly understand the nature of the job until it’s yours, until you’re sitting at that desk.
And that’s why every President gains a greater appreciation for all those who served before him; for the leaders from both parties who have taken on the momentous challenges and felt the enormous weight of a nation on their shoulders. And for me, that appreciation very much extends to President Bush.
The first thing I found in that desk the day I took office was a letter from George, and one that demonstrated his compassion and generosity. For he knew that I would come to learn what he had learned — that being President, above all, is a humbling job. There are moments where you make mistakes. There are times where you wish you could turn back the clock. And what I know is true about President Bush, and I hope my successor will say about me, is that we love this country and we do our best.
Now, in the past, President Bush has said it’s impossible to pass judgment on his presidency while he’s still alive. So maybe this is a little bit premature. But even now, there are certain things that we know for certain.
We know about the son who was raised by two strong, loving parents in Midland, famously inheriting, as he says, “my daddy’s eyes and my mother’s mouth.” (Laughter.) The young boy who once came home after a trip to a museum and proudly presented his horrified mother with a small dinosaur tailbone he had smuggled home in his pocket. (Laughter.) I’ll bet that went over great with Barbara.
We know about the young man who met the love of his life at a dinner party, ditching his plans to go to bed early and instead talking with the brilliant and charming Laura Welch late into the night.
We know about the father who raised two remarkable, caring, beautiful daughters, even after they tried to discourage him from running for President, saying, “Dad, you’re not as cool as you think you are.” (Laughter.) Mr. President, I can relate. (Laughter.) And now we see President Bush the grandfather, just beginning to spoil his brand-new granddaughter.
So we know President Bush the man. And what President Clinton said is absolutely true — to know the man is to like the man, because he’s comfortable in his own skin. 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. He is a good man.
But we also know something about George Bush the leader. As we walk through this library, 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.
We remember the compassion that he showed by leading the global fight against HIV/AIDS and malaria, helping to save millions of lives and reminding people in some of the poorest corners of the globe that America cares and that we’re here to help.
We remember his commitment to reaching across the aisle to unlikely allies like Ted Kennedy, because he believed that we had to reform our schools in ways that help every child learn, not just some; that we have to repair a broken immigration system; and that this progress is only possible when we do it together.
Seven years ago, President Bush restarted an important conversation by speaking with the American people about our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants. And even though comprehensive immigration reform has taken a little longer than any of us expected, I am hopeful that this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today, that we bring it home — for our families, and our economy, and our security, and for this incredible country that we love. And if we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush. (Applause.)
And finally, a President bears no greater decision and no more solemn burden than serving as Commander-in-Chief of the greatest military that the world has ever known. As President Bush himself has said, “America must and will keep its word to the men and women who have given us so much.” So even as we Americans may at times disagree on matters of foreign policy, we share a profound respect and reverence for the men and women of our military and their families. And we are united in our determination to comfort the families of the fallen and to care for those who wear the uniform of the United States. (Applause.)
On the flight back from Russia, after negotiating with Nikita Khrushchev at the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy’s secretary found a small slip of paper on which the President had written a favorite saying: “I know there is a God. And I see a storm coming. If he has a place for me, I believe I am ready.”
No one can be completely ready for this office. But America needs leaders who are willing to face the storm head on, even as they pray for God’s strength and wisdom so that they can do what they believe is right. And that’s what the leaders with whom I share this stage have all done. That’s what President George W. Bush chose to do. That’s why I’m honored to be part of today’s celebration.
Mr. President, for your service, for your courage, for your sense of humor, and, most of all, for your love of country, thank you very much. From all the citizens of the United States of America, God bless you. And God bless these United States. (Applause.)