Five living American presidents and their wives gathered in Dallas Thursday to honor the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
All presidents – George W. Bush, Barack Obama, 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.
“To know the man is to like the man,” President Barack Obama said of his predecessor.
“He is a good man.”
The last time all five living presidents were together was shortly before Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009, when he said he needed their advice before taking office.
“We’ve been called the world’s most exclusive club – and we do have a pretty nice club house – but the truth is, it’s more like a support group,” Barack Obama said.
The leaders were putting aside the profound ideological differences that have divided them for years for a day of pomp and pleasantries.
For George W. Bush, 66, the ceremony also marked his unofficial return to the public eye four years after the end of his deeply polarizing presidency.
Bill Clinton, who spoke just before Barack Obama, revealed that George W. Bush would call him “a couple of times a year in his second term… just to talk politics”.
He drew laughs from the crowd as he added: “Dear God, I hope there is no record of those conversations in this vast and beautiful building.”
Bill Clinton also joked about the perception that he has grown so close to the Bush family that he has become their “black sheep son”.
“My mother told me not to talk too long today – and Barbara, I will not let you down,” Bill Clinton quipped, referring to George W. Bush’s 87-year-old mother.
George W. Bush was equally light-hearted as he took the podium on Thursday.
“Alexander Hamilton once worried about ex-presidents wandering among the people like discontented ghosts,” he said.
“Actually I think we seem pretty happy.”
Despite his humor, George W. Bush was clearly emotional about the dedication.
He choked up toward the end of his remarks as he declared that he believes the nation’s best days are ahead.
Standing in an exact replica of the Oval Office in the museum honoring him earlier Thursday, George W. Bush uttered a quick and definitive “No” to a question of whether he missed his old job.
“I had all the fame and power I needed for eight years and Laura and I knew when our time was up… It was time to go home,” George Bush told Matt Lauer during a broadcast tour through a museum depicting his presidency.
He said the museum, which will be unveiled to the public on Thursday, is meant to explain the events that led up to some of his most controversial decisions – not to “defend” or “argue” those decisions.
“The whole purpose is to lay out the facts as I saw them at the time,” he said.
“Because ultimately, history will judge whether critics are right or wrong. But this is a place to educate people.”
In designing the museum, George W. Bush said: “I never thought about my critics. I thought about just laying out for the American people the events that began the 21st century and let them understand what it’s like to make a decision, talk about the different events that took place, talk about some of the successes and some of the failures.”
Former first lady Laura Bush interjected that the museum is also meant to illustrate the difficulties of sorting through conflicting guidance from a variety of advisers – and also the challenge of being “prodded” by the press along the way.
“<<Prodded>> is a polite word,” Laura Bush quipped, laughing.
George Bush also said he empathizes with President Barack Obama’s tough job in uplifting the country from tragedies like the Boston bombings.
Another emotional moment came as George Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, spoke to the crowd and then rose out of his wheelchair with the help of his wife and son.
“It’s a beautiful day in Dallas and it’s a great pleasure to be here,” the elder Bush said.
“This is very special to Babara and me.”
“I wish the president all the best in dealing with the trauma and the heartbreak, because I understand that part of the job of being president is the <<comforter-in-chief>>,” he said.
George W. Bush knows that role all too well after experiencing the September 11, 2001 terror attacks while he was president.
“I became a war-time president, something I didn’t want to be,” he said.
He recalled the moment that his then-chief of staff, Andy Card, interrupted him while he was reading a story to an elementary classroom in Florida to tell him about the attack.
“My job became clarified that minute in the classroom, and that is to protect the homeland,” George W. Bush said.
Items on display in the new presidential library include a pistol that was captured with Saddam Hussein on December 13, 2003 and a pair of cowboy boots commemorating George W. Bush’s tenure as general managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team.
Also on display is the bullhorn President George W. Bush used to speak to firefighters and emergency crews at Ground Zero after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
In a series of interviews before his Presidential library and museum is unveiled, George Bush also said he was “very comfortable” with his decision to go to war in Iraq.
VP Dick Cheney and President George W. Bush had a strained relationship, as Bush was concerned over the public’s general belief that Cheney was a puppet master, controlling the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through a presidential conduit.
As the New York Times reported in 2010, George Bush also considered dropping Dick Cheney from the Republican ticket in 2004 to “demonstrate I was in charge”, the former president wrote in his memoir.
When asked about his darkest days in office, George W. Bush responded that 9/11 was of course difficult. Also hard? “Trying to be the comforter in chief, trying to mend broken hearts.”
“There were things I didn’t want to deal with,” he said.
He also said that the decision to sign off on the bailout was “frustrating and difficult”, though riding on the advice from Chairman of the Federal Reserve Ben Bernanke put him more at ease.
“Katrina was tough,” he added.
“And you see human suffering firsthand.”
George W. Bush also spoke on the uniqueness of the museum, as his was the first presidency that relied heavily on digital communication, such as emails and texts.
The former president said that he never sent an email in his eight years in office, however, because he was “fearful of Congress’ intrusion into [his] emails” and the possibility that he could be subpoenaed.