Five members of the exclusive club of U.S. presidents gathered in Dallas today to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a red-brick-and-cream museum and library that chronicles the eight years in office of the nation’s 43rd president.
President Barack Obama, who campaigned against Bush’s policies and opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, set politics aside to join Bush and former Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The dedication marked the first time since January 2009 that all five living presidents -- a group that includes two prominent political families, Bushes and Clintons -- convened in one spot.
“I dedicate this library with unshakeable faith in the future of our country,” George W. Bush said, his voice cracking with emotion at one point. Whatever challenges come, he said, “our nation’s best days lie ahead.”
The $250 million, 23-acre complex includes the presidential library, museum and the George W. Bush Institute, a forum for debate on public policy.
More than 8,000 people, including foreign dignitaries, governors and about 2,500 Bush administration alumni, were on hand at the sun-drenched complex, the 13th presidential library that will be operated by the U.S. National Archives.
Visitors to the library “are going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions,” by expanding freedom, helping people in Africa and elsewhere battle AIDs, while making “the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe,” George W. Bush said. “I’m retired from public politics, happily so I might add, but not from public service.”
Obama, in his remarks, said he and the former presidents are part of group sometimes referred to as “the world’s most exclusive club.”
“But the truth is, our club is more like a support group,” he said. “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.”
George W. Bush presided over some of the most tumultuous years of any recent president.
The former two-term president, now 66, rallied a shaken nation after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, yet left office seven years later with two unfinished wars and the nation’s economy in deep recession from which it is still recovering.
Bush wrote in his memoir, “Decision Points,” that he thought the focus of his presidency would be domestic policy. The focus changed to war with the 2001 attacks.
“My blood was boiling,” Bush wrote. “We were going to find out who did this and kick their ass.”
His popularity soared to 90 percent in some polls after the attacks on New York and Washington and sank to as low as 22 percent in the days before leaving office in January 2009, according to a CBS/New York Times poll. In between, wars dragged on, military surges went into effect, a housing bubble burst and the largest tax cuts in history expanded the federal deficit.
Bush billed himself as the “decider,” who relied more on instinct and less on analysis.
“He was a high-stakes gambler, advancing controversial and risky proposals across the board,” said Bruce Buchanan, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of four books on the presidency. “Conservatives liked his guts, liberals thought him reckless.”
Republican Bush campaigned in both elections as a “compassionate conservative,” a slogan that led to his signature No Child Left Behind law to set achievement goals in science and math, with penalties against schools that fail. He pushed through Congress a new prescription-drug benefit benefiting seniors and obtained approval from lawmakers to use government funds for “faith-based” charities offering community social services. He pressed for new programs in Africa to fight disease, especially HIV-AIDs.
Carter, Clinton and Obama, all Democrats, cited his work to fight global disease.
The federal government’s lagging response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 marked a turning point in the Bush presidency. His approval ratings began to fall with images of Katrina’s aftermath.
In foreign affairs, Bush ordered a U.S. troop surge in early 2007, accelerating opposition to the war in Iraq. “It was a huge decision that I don’t think anyone else would have taken. It worked,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote in his memoir.
On the domestic front, Bush battled a slowdown in the economy that led to the worst recession since the 1930s. A sub-prime mortgage crisis led to a banking meltdown and, by late 2008, a severe credit crisis.
To rescue the economy, then-Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, proposed a rescue of the banking industry with a $700 billion bailout package, known as the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. The use of taxpayer money for the rescue helped fuel opposition to federal spending that eventually grew into the Tea Party movement.
Bush has remained largely out of the spotlight since leaving office in 2009, spending his time raising money for the policy center, mountain biking, going to Texas Rangers baseball games and taking up a new vocation: painting.
“There’s a lot of issues that people would like to get my opinion on, and I really decided to stay out of the public arena,” Bush said in an interview with ABC News broadcast yesterday.