The opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center went smoothly, complete with blue skies and warm feelings. There were a few protestors with signs on the SMU campus, but they were stationed a long distance from the area occupied by the presidents–and out of their sight. The best description I can give for the proceedings was “sweet.” W. is not a man who hides his emotions, and his eyes glistened during the speeches. He choked up as he finished his own remarks, and he was particularly moved by the presence of his parents, noting that this was the first time the parents of a president have been present for the dedication of their offspring’s presidential library. Laura’s appearance was greeted by a huge ovation; for the former First Family, Dallas is most certainly home.
Never let it be said that the government of the United States does not know how to put on a good show. Every major musical work of patriotic significance was played: “America the Beautiful,” “God Bless America,” a stirring chorale rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and, of course, the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Jimmy Carter was the first of the former presidents to speak. He praised Bush for the work he has done in Africa. Carter told how he asked Bush, as president, to try to stop the war between North and South Sudan, and Bush had done so. Carter referred to the “great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth.”
Obama had the tricky job of speaking about the man whom he succeeded as president and used as a foil in his first race for White House. “No matter how much you think you’re ready to assume the presidency,” he said, “you don’t understand it until you have sat at that desk,” adding, “being president is a humbling job.” He went on to describe the dedication as a “Texas-sized party,” and he thanked Bush “for your efforts to reform the immigration system.” When the time came for Bush 41 to speak, he was too frail to get out of his wheelchair–W. and Barb had to assist him–but he still had the old pol’s instinct to wave at the crowd. “Good job,” W. whispered to him. Clinton called the library “the latest, grandest example of former presidents to write history” and talked about his post-presidential duties that he had shared with the elder George Bush, at W.’s request, including relief efforts with the tsunami disaster. “He is a son raised by two loving parents,” Obama said. “To know the man is to like the man. We’re reminded of his strength as he stood on the rubble with that bullhorn.” He also noted “his commitment to reaching across the aisle” with Ted Kennedy. Finally, he returned to immigration reform: “[It] has taken longer than expected. If we do it, it will be thanks to George Bush.”
When Bush’s time came to speak, he was ready with a good line: “There was a time in my life when I was unlikely to be found in a library, much less found one.” He spoke briefly about his presidency. “Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves,” he said. “We stayed true to our convictions.” And he talked about freedom, which will surely become a major theme of the new library.
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History has not dealt Bush a good hand for facing posterity. The Iraq War was a fiasco that impugned the integrity of the administration. The collapse of law and order in Iraq let loose the demons of religious extremism and worked to the advantage of Iran, the real enemy of the United States in the region. As a historic figure, Bush will have to answer for three things: first, the war in Iraq; second, the failure to respond effectively to Hurricane Katrina; and, third, the lax regulation of the economy, which led to an economic crisis that threatened to expand worldwide. Those who hope to contribute to his rehabilitation have their work cut out for them.