A crowd of 8,000 people, filled with global leaders past and present, helped officially dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Center at SMU in Dallas on April 25. President Barack Obama and former presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton and their spouses shared the stage with George W. and Laura Bush.
In addition to world leaders such as former prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy, Dallas dignitaries Mayor Mike Rawlings, former mayor Tom Leppert, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn and former U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson attended the ceremony. Other local officials present included Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, Highland Park Mayor Joel Williams and University Park Mayor Richard Davis.
The morning dedication was light-hearted and peppered with jokes.
"My George is a man who, when someone needs a hand, he offers him his arms." — Laura Bush
"Nothing says an exciting get together more than an invitation to see millions of documents from someone else’s time in office," Laura Bush said as she welcomed the distinguished crowd.
She expressed admiration for her husband's character and commitment to the American people.
"I remember how steady and steadfast he was for eight years," she said, adding, "My George is a man who, when someone needs a hand, he offers him his arms."
Jimmy Carter opened his speech by quoting a New Yorker cartoon.
"Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a former president," Carter said with a laugh. He went on to thank Bush for his work in Africa, especially in structuring a peace treaty between North and South Sudan in 2005.
Before praising the center, Bill Clinton said that he was "the black sheep of the Bush family" and called the center "the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history."
"I want to take my hat off to President Bush," Clinton said. "This is beautiful library. The exhibits are great. The work of the Bush institute is inspiring."
George H.W. Bush, seated in a wheelchair, kept his remarks brief. He expressed pride in his oldest son and said, "God bless America and thank you very much."
When there was a brief pause, the elder Bush leaned over to his son and quipped, "Was that too long?" The crowd burst into applause, and Bush's wife and son helped him stand briefly on stage.
"Polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. In the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold." — George W. Bush
Obama used most of his speaking time to laud Bush, though he did work in a pitch for comprehensive immigration reform.
"This is a Texas-sized party, and that’s worthy of what we are here to do today, honor the life and legacy of the 43rd president of the United States, George W. Bush," Obama said, adding, "Being president above all is a humbling job. There are times when you make mistakes. There are times when you wish you could turn back the clock."
In closing, Obama called Bush "a good man" who didn't put on pretenses or take himself too seriously. He thanked Bush for his humor, courage and love of country.
Bush took his cue and offered up an example of his sense of humor.
"There was a time in my life when I wasn’t likely to be found at a library, much less found one," Bush said before getting serious about his time in office.
Bush also spoke fondly of his wife, Laura, saying "The American people rightly love her, and so do I."
Laura, an SMU graduate, enjoyed a homecoming unlike any other dignitary on stage.
"When she earned her degree in library science, I’m not sure this day is exactly what she had in mind," Bush said.
The first presidential library of the 21st century, the Bush Center holds 200 million emails, 70 million pages of paper records, 4 million digital photographs, 50,000 audio tapes and 43,000 historical artifacts.
Recognizing that his decisions were often controversial, Bush said he remained confident in his presidency's legacy. He didn't mention the Iraq War or any specific policy, opting instead to opine on his guiding principles.
"Polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. In the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold," Bush said. "My deepest conviction is that the United States of America must strive to extend the reach of freedom."
Bush choked up as he ended his speech, saying he would always believe that America’s best days lie ahead.
"I dedicate this library with unshakable faith in the future of our country," he said.