President Barack Obama, former President George W. Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush and former President Jimmy Carter attend the opening ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
DALLAS - The nation's five living presidents gathered here Thursday to help dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
"To know the man is to like the man," President Obama said of his predecessor. "He is a good man."
Bush opened his remarks with wry humor. He joked that there was a time in his life that he wouldn't be found in a library, much less found one, and noted that Obama, unlike the other ex-presidents, has a job.
Noting Alexander Hamilton's concern that ex-presidents would wander the nation like "discontented ghosts," Bush said, "Actually, I think we seem pretty happy." Bush, a stickler for punctuality, began his remarks a few minutes early.
He thanked his wife, parents, former aides, world leaders and his vice president, Dick Cheney, adding, "I'm proud to call you friend."
"In the end, leaders are defined by the convictions that they hold," Bush said as he grew serious. His chief conviction, he said: "The United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom."
Future generations, he said, are "going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions," that his administration raised school standards, lowered taxes, liberated nations from dictatorships and "made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe."
He teared up as he concluded his remarks. "It was the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States," he said, and he believes its best days lie ahead.
Obama called the meeting of all presidents "a special day for our democracy." He said he needed their advice shortly before his inauguration when they were last together. "Our club's more like a support group," Obama said. "It's impossible to truly understand the nature of the job until it's yours."
The current president said he found a letter from Bush on his first inauguration day that "demonstrated his compassion and his generosity." Obama, a frequent critic of what he has called Bush's "failed policies," praised Bush's leadership after the 9/11 attacks, his fight against AIDS in Africa and his immigration and education policies. Of his tenure as commander in chief, Obama said, "We share a profound respect and reverence" for the nation's military.
The ceremony was the first gathering of the presidents since January 2009, when they met at the White House before Obama's inauguration. Bush is 66; his father George H.W. Bush, 88; President Obama, 51;Bill Clinton, 66;and Jimmy Carter, 88.
The younger Bush gripped his father's hand during the invocation. George H.W. Bush, who was hospitalized for a month last winter, was in a wheelchair. He has a form of Parkinson's disease.
"This is very special for Barbara and me," George H.W. Bush said. With help from his oldest son and his wife Barbara, the senior Bush stood briefly during a standing ovation.
Clinton joked that he is the "black sheep son" of the Bush family, with whom he has become close. "My mother," he joked to former First Lady Barbara Bush, "told me not to talk too long today and Barbara, I will not let you down."
Clinton also complimented Bush on his efforts to fight AIDS in Africa and thanked Obama for continuing the program. He also thanked Bush for helping to raise money for Haiti's earthquake recovery. "I like President Bush," he said. "He's disarmingly direct."
Former First Lady Laura Bush said the library was designed to "present the past and engage the future." A presidential library, she said, "is not just about one president. Each library is about our nation and the world during that time."
She mentioned that the exhibits include the bullhorn her husband used at New York's Ground Zero on Sept. 14, 2001, to vow that those who had attacked the World Trade Center three days earlier "will hear all of us soon."
Carter, wearing sunglasses, reminded the audience of Bush's "great contributions" to Africa, including increases in development assistance, an AIDS and HIV prevention initiative and his current women's health programs there.
The audience of 15,000 at the outdoor ceremony included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Protesters gathered a few blocks away. "Obama and Bush commit war crimes," one of their signs read.
Mark Langdale, the Center's president, calls the museum "a personal scrapbook: of the 43rd president and his wife.
The artifacts in the 43,620-square-foot museum, recall the opulence, tension, drama and occasional absurdity of life in the White House. Displays of gifts to Bush and his wife, Laura, include a stuffed lion and a silver and gold sculpture of a team of oxen pulling a nomad's tent.
Bush's baseball collection is here, and so are salutes to his beloved late dogs, Spot and Barney. Visitors can pose for photos behind the desk in the full-scale replica of the Oval Office and step into a recreated White House Rose Garden where Texas bluebonnets have replaced some of the roses in the original.
There's an interactive video exhibit called Decision Points Theater that gives players chances to compete against each other by second-guessing or affirming Bush's decisions about Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by weighing arguments for or against them that are delivered by actors.
The most striking element of the museum is a looming, twisted beam from the World Trade Center. There is a low wall around the scarred steel that invites visitors to reach in and touch it. The walls that surround it are engraved with the names of that day's victims.
Bush told USA TODAY last week that the museum is not an attempt to "correct the record" about his eight years in office or to defend his legacy. "Eventually," he said, "the record will be properly analyzed by historians who will come to the archives and do research and ... look at the impact of the decisions I made" with the benefit of "enough time to objectively analyze" them.
Laura Bush said at a news conference Wednesday that the museum also is intended to remind visitors of parts of her husband's record they "might not know." She mentioned his ongoing efforts to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS in Africa and his decision to give protected status to more than 300,000 square miles of ocean.
The Bush Center, on the campus of Southern Methodist University - Laura Bush's alma mater - opens to the public May 1. The library's archives include more than 43,000 artifacts, 70 million pages of paper and 200 million emails. The Center also includes the Bush Institute, a public policy center.
More than $500 million was raised for the Center and its programs. The library and museum were turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration on Wednesday and now belong, Laura Bush said, "to the American people."
There's also a political undercurrent amid the nostalgia. Two possible 2016 presidential candidates, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Jeb Bush, the former president's brother, gave speeches in Dallas Wednesday. Obama spoke at a fundraiser here that was expected to raise $1 million for the Democratic Party.
Former First Lady Barbara Bush said no more members of her family should run for president.
Appearing in an interview from Dallas on NBC's Today show, Mrs. Bush, the wife of President George H.W. Bush, was asked if she thought that her son Jeb, the former governor of Florida, should seek the presidency.
"He's by far the best qualified," Mrs. Bush said, "but no."
"We've had enough Bushes," she said.
On Wednesday, George W. Bush told CNN he thought Jeb Bush should run for president.