- The Washington Times - Friday, November 19, 2004

LITTLE ROCK — Four presidents, two Democrats and two Republicans, put partisan politics aside yesterday as they gathered to dedicate the William J. Clinton Presidential Center.

With former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George Bush and President Bush on stage in a cold rain, Mr. Clinton congratulated the 43rd president for his re-election and thanked him for attending the grand opening of the $165 million library.

“I can’t thank you enough for your generous words and for coming to the opening at all. I mean, after all, you just delayed your own library opening by four years,” Mr. Clinton said to laughter from 30,000 soaked supporters, most wearing ponchos and huddled under umbrellas.

Mr. Clinton, the first chief executive to be impeached since Andrew Johnson in 1868, said he always strived to be the best president he could be.

“I believe the job of a president is to understand and explain the time in which he serves, to set forth a vision of where we need to go and a strategy of how to get there, and then to pursue it with all his mind and heart,” said Mr. Clinton, looking thin after cardiac surgery in September.

He thanked members of the Senate and House, which impeached him in 1998 after his affair with a White House intern prompted him to lie to the American people that he had “never had sexual relations with that woman, Monica Lewinsky.” Mr. Clinton said his opponents were “not responsible for any of the mistakes I made.”

The four presidents who gathered for yesterday’s storm-drenched event — former President Gerald R. Ford, 91, could not travel to Little Rock — ribbed each other good-naturedly.

“A fellow in Saline County was asked by his son why he liked Governor Clinton so much,” President Bush said. “He said, ‘Son, he’ll look you in the eye, he’ll shake your hand, he’ll hold your baby, he’ll pat your dog — all at the same time.’ ”

Later, the president said Mr. Clinton’s staffers “were known to say, ‘If Clinton were the Titanic, the iceberg would sink.’”

The president’s father lost his 1992 re-election bid to Mr. Clinton, who was re-elected in 1996 to become the first Democrat since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to be elected twice. The elder Mr. Bush joked about Mr. Clinton’s late campaign swing this year on behalf of Democratic challenger Sen. John Kerry.

Mr. Clinton “was a little hard on the president during the recent campaign, but in the spirit of being kinder and gentler, I’ve long since forgiven him for that,” the president’s father said.

As for his own battles with Mr. Clinton, the elder Bush said: “on the campaign trail, it was plain to see how he fed off the energy and the hopes and the aspirations of the American people. Simply put, he was a natural and he made it look too easy. And, oh, how I hated him for that.”

The soggy crowd laughed when Mr. Carter joked that the four men on the stage enjoy a life envied by others. “I saw a New Yorker cartoon last year that describes our situation in life. A young boy is looking up at his father and he says, ‘Daddy, when I grow up, I want to be a former president,’ ” Mr. Carter said.

“Well, this is a truly great time of our lives. One of the many benefits of that time that we enjoy is that neither the news media nor any member of the House or Senate can tell us how to do our job, unless you happen to be married to one of them, like Bill is,” Mr. Carter said.

Throughout the nearly three-hour program — which began late, in keeping with the habitual tardiness of the guest of honor, who was said to operate on “Clinton Standard Time” — the four presidents bunched under umbrellas next to their wives.

All stood and moved about on the stage to get a better look at singer Bono as he performed the Beatles classic “Rain,” changing the song’s lyric, “They might as well be dead,” to “We got four presidents out of bed.”

Throughout the musical interlude, presidents sidled up to presidents, first ladies chatted with first ladies. Mr. Clinton stood with his arm around his daughter, Chelsea, listening to the rocker from the Irish band U2. Former first lady Barbara Bush pulled a small camera from her pocket and snapped a picture.

In their comments at the end of the program, each of the presidents praised the Arkansas native for his efforts from 1993 to 2001.

Mr. Clinton “brought insight, wisdom and determination to bear on the issues that he addressed,” and “was a leader who could inspire other people to go beyond what they thought were their own limits,” said Mr. Carter, a fellow Democrat.

“Over the years, Bill Clinton showed himself to be much more than a good politician. … He was an innovator, a serious student of policy and a man of compassion,” President Bush said. “In all his actions and decisions, the American people sensed a deep empathy for the poor and the powerless.”

Mr. Clinton returned the praise, singling out the current president for his political acumen.

“I remember the first time I ever heard George W. Bush give a speech in Iowa, and I called a friend of mine and I said, ‘My God, that guy can beat us. He is a good politician,’ ” Mr. Clinton said.

Mr. Clinton directly addressed his successor: “Mr. President, again, I say: I hope you get to cross over into the promised land of Middle East peace. We have a good opportunity, and we are all praying for you.”

In his speech, Mr. Clinton dwelled on the recurring motto of his presidency, building “a bridge to the 21st century” — a theme reflected in the design of his new library.

“What it is to me is the symbol of not only what I tried to do, but what I want to do with the rest of my life: building bridges from yesterday to tomorrow, building bridges across racial and religious and ethnic and income and political divides,” he said.

Mr. Clinton, who twice was elected by less than a majority of Americans — with 43 percent of the popular vote in 1992 and 49 percent in 1996 — concluded by decrying the partisanship and divisiveness of modern politics.

“I don’t want to be too political here, but it bothers me when America gets as divided as it was. I once said to a friend of mine, about three days before the election — I heard all these terrible things — I said, ‘You know, am I the only person in the entire United States of America who likes both George W. Bush and John Kerry, who believes they’re both good people, who believes they both love our country and they just see the world differently?’ ”

Mr. Kerry received rousing applause from the crowd of Democrats when he arrived at the ceremony, but Mr. Clinton said he was not sure whether the Massachusetts senator was present: “I can’t see through all the umbrellas and all the ponchos or whatever you call those plastic things that make you all look so beautiful, but I’m pretty sure Senator Kerry’s out there. And if he is, I want to thank him and I’m glad he’s back on the job.”

At the end of the dedication, Miss Clinton handed the keys to the library over to the federal government, which will maintain the site. Eleven former presidents, dating to Herbert Hoover, are memorialized by taxpayer-funded presidential libraries. Of the past 12 presidents, only the Richard M. Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif., is not a part of the federal program.

Mr. Clinton’s library is the repository of 76.8 million documents, 1.8 million photographs and 79,000 artifacts, including the sunglasses the Arkansas governor wore when he played the saxophone on “The Arsenio Hall Show” in 1992.

The 148,000-square-foot box of steel and glass on the bank of the Arkansas River features a sprawling courtyard for researchers, complete with wireless Internet hookups.

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