DALLAS — An emotional George W. Bush dedicated his presidential library and museum Thursday, calling it a tribute to his pursuit of freedom and to America's bright future.
"Leaders are defined by the convictions they hold," the former president said. "And my deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom."
With President Obama and three former presidents at his side, Mr. Bush said the $250 million center at Southern Methodist University will show future generations that he stayed true to his convictions.
"I believe that freedom is a gift from God," he said. "We expanded freedom at home by raising standards in our schools and lowering taxes for everybody. We liberated a nation from a dictatorship and freed people from AIDS. And when freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe."
That last comment seemed to be aimed in part at critics such as Mr. Obama, who has accused Mr. Bush of abusing power in the war on terrorism.
The museum chronicles the Republican president's tumultuous two terms in office, from his disputed election in 2000 over Vice President Al Gore through the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the financial crisis at the end of his administration. As he concluded his remarks, Mr. Bush choked with emotion and tears filled his eyes.
"I will always believe our nation's best days lie ahead," he said to the thousands of well-wishers gathered on a bright, sunny day. "God bless."
Tributes and politics
Mr. Obama used the occasion to advocate for immigration reform, saying Mr. Bush "restarted an important conversation" seven years ago when he pushed unsuccessfully for such legislation. He said he is hopeful that Congress this year will pass the legislation, which would include a pathway to citizenship for 11 million illegal immigrants.
"If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush," Mr. Obama said.
The president, who missed few opportunities during his political campaigns to criticize Mr. Bush's policies, downplayed their differences on the joyful day. He called Mr. Bush "a good man," one of the highest compliments that Mr. Bush pays friends.
"To know the man is to like the man, because he's comfortable in his own skin," Mr. Obama said. "He takes the job seriously, but he doesn't take himself too seriously."
The event showcased a rare gathering of five presidents — Mr. Bush, his father, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Mr. Obama. Both the elder Mr. Bush, who used a wheelchair, and Mr. Carter are 88 years old.
Five first ladies also were on hand — Michelle Obama, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Rosalynn Carter.
The elder Mr. Bush, looking somewhat frail after recent hospitalizations, said it was a "great pleasure to be here to honor our oldest son."
Then he turned to his son and quipped, "Too long?" It prompted a big laugh from the younger man.
As Laura Bush recounted the enormous challenges that her husband faced on 9/11 and other moments in office, Mr. Bush pressed his lips together firmly and fought back tears.
"I remember how steadfast and steady he was for eight years," Mrs. Bush said.
The Bush team reflects
Although the day was full of praise for Mr. Bush, there was thinly veiled disdain among some of his allies for Mr. Obama, who criticized the Republican's policies during his presidential campaigns in 2008 and 2012.
Tom Ridge, who served as the nation's first Homeland Security secretary under Mr. Bush, said Mr. Obama has never given credit to his predecessor for building a national security infrastructure to fight global terrorism, including the USA Patriot Act, which expanded intelligence-gathering and executive powers, and the opening of the Guantanamo Bay detention center in Cuba.
"President Obama, during the course of his campaign in 2008, criticized it," Mr. Ridge said of the enhanced counterterrorism apparatus. "But once he got into the Oval Office and understood what Bush had done ... as president of the United States, he's got to be damned glad it existed and he inherited it, rather than trying to build it himself. He's never quite publicly acknowledged it. The infrastructure that pulled down [Osama] bin Laden was created by President Bush."
But Mr. Ridge told The Washington Times, "The beautiful thing about President Bush — he doesn't care whether President Obama [gives credit]. He did it for the right reasons."
The event also carried undertones of the presidential race in 2016, with Mrs. Clinton and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in attendance. George W. Bush is encouraging his brother to run, but their mother, Barbara, said Thursday that she doesn't want another Bush presidency.
"There are other people out there that are very qualified and we've had enough Bushes," she said on NBC's "Today" show, adding that she doesn't think Jeb will make a bid.
"He's by far the best-qualified man, but no, I really don't" want him to run, she said.
A rare gathering of leaders
Among the other dignitaries and celebrities in attendance were Mr. Bush's vice president, Dick Cheney (who sported a Stetson); former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his wife, Kim Yoon-ok; Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican; baseball Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan; House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican; former Secretaries of State Colin L. Powell and Condoleezza Rice; former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and his wife, Cherie; former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert; former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi; Michael Reagan, son of the late president; Anders Fogh Rasmussen, secretary-general of NATO; and former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo.
Mr. Clinton praised Mr. Bush for championing the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, Mr. Bush's multibillion-dollar initiative to combat the disease in African nations.
"No president of my party could have passed that through Congress," Mr. Clinton said.
Similarly, Mr. Carter said he admired Mr. Bush for helping "the neediest people on Earth."
A few protesters stood outside the security perimeter. They included a group holding signs that said, "Obama and Bush commit war crimes" and "What about Begazi?"
Mr. Ryan, who pitched for the Texas Rangers when Mr. Bush was co-owner of the team, said it was "a very special day" for the former president.
"I'm very proud of what he's been able to accomplish," Mr. Ryan said.
The $250 million presidential library and museum opens to the public Wednesday.
The museum includes interactive displays such as "Decision Points Theater," which presents visitors with crises such as Hurricane Katrina and the Wall Street meltdown, and allows visitors to choose a solution to each problem. Video displays then explain which decisions Mr. Bush made — and why.
An exhibit on 9/11 includes the bullhorn that Mr. Bush used to address rescue workers at the World Trade Center site three days after the attacks.
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