NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) – George W. Bush shed a sentimental tear. Barack Obama mused about the burdens of the office. Bill Clinton dished out wisecracks. Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush chimed in, too, on a rare day of harmony at the dedication of the younger Bush’s presidential library that glossed over the hard edges and partisan divides of five presidencies spanning more than three tumultuous decades.
“To know the man is to like the man,” Obama declared of his Republican predecessor, speaking Thursday before a crowd of 10,000 at an event that had the feel of a class reunion for the partisans who had powered the Bush administration from 2001 to 2009. Dick Cheney was there in a white cowboy hat. Condoleezza Rice gave shout-outs to visiting dignitaries. Colin Powell and Karl Rove were prominent faces in the crowd.
Presidential historian Terry Golway is an author and a professor at the Kean University Center for History, Politics and Policy.
“What stood out to me was the sense of camaraderie among these politicians who really do have very different world views and very different opinions. And yet, it does really go to show that only a president can really understand what another president has been through,” Golway told WCBS 880’s Wayne Cabot.
Golway said time has been kind to the 43rd president as his legacy continues to be fleshed out.
“I think the narrative is that he was the president during very tumultuous times. In fact, an unprecedented time given the attacks of Sept. 11. And I think that time has softened some of the edges around President Bush. It was interesting to hear how often his work in fighting AIDS in Africa and other soft of humanitarian work in the third world – how many times that was mentioned during the ceremony at the library,” Golway told Cabot.
On Thursday at the dedication of his Presidential Library on the campus of Southern Methodist University, there was no mention of Iraq or Afghanistan, the wars that dominated Bush’s presidency and so divided the nation. There were only gentle references to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And praise aplenty for the resolve that Bush showed in responding to the 9/11 terror attacks.
Clinton joked that the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center was “the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.” But he also praised Bush for including interactive exhibits at the center that invite visitors to make their own choices on major decisions that he faced.
Bush, 66, made indirect reference to the polarizing decision points of his presidency, drawing a knowing laugh as he told the crowd: “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.”
He said he was guided throughout his presidency by a determination “to expand the reach of freedom.”
“It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular.”
It was a day for family and sentimentality, Bush choking up with emotion at the conclusion of his remarks.
The 43rd president singled out his 88-year-old father, another ex-president, to tell him: “41, it is awesome that you are here today.”
The presidential center at Southern Methodist University includes a library, museum and policy institute. It contains more than 70 million pages of paper records, 200 million emails, 4 million digital photos and 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.
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 library’s design committee, officials said, with a keen eye toward ensuring that the 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.
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