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DALLAS—Former first lady Laura Bush formally unveiled the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum to the media on Wednesday, saying she hopes the facility will help Americans “really learn and relearn” about her husband's presidency.
Speaking on the eve of the library’s dedication ceremony, Bush emphasized that her husband’s goal was not to create a facility that would be “a monument to himself,” but one that would shed light on the decisions he made as president and the principles that guided him in public life.
“If it’s based on one personality, it becomes less relevant over time,” Bush told reporters. “But if it’s based on the principles that we believe are the most important for our country, it can stay relevant.”
The library, located on the grounds of Southern Methodist University near downtown Dallas, is designed to emphasize how the 9/11 attacks dramatically changed the country and the course of Bush’s presidency.
Entering the library’s main exhibit, visitors first see photos of George Bush and his family against the backdrop of large photos of his Texas ranch. It casts him as a more centrist figure driven by faith and a “call to service,” and emphasizes his outreach to Latino voters and his pledge to be a “compassionate conservative.”
The exhibit focuses on Bush’s proposals on education reform, including No Child Left Behind, and other key domestic issues Laura Bush said her husband thought would drive his presidency. But as visitors turn a corner, they immediately come upon a large, mangled steel beam from the World Trade Center’s south tower, which the library says was near the point of impact when a hijacked airliner crashed into the building nearly 12 years ago.
The beam, which the museum encourages visitors to touch, stands vertically in the room, with its backdrop a wall listing the names of the victims of the 9/11 attacks, as well as video monitors playing news footage from that day and excerpts of George Bush’s speech to the nation that night.
A nearby exhibit shows artifacts familiar to anyone who closely followed news coverage in the days after the attacks, including the bullhorn that Bush used to address firefighters and other rescue workers at the World Trade Center site.
Laura Bush said family members of some of the victims of the 9/11 attacks would attend Thursday’s dedication ceremony. She predicted the section of the library dealing with the attacks would be the most emotional for visitors and said the goal was to tell the story of what happened that day from Bush’s perspective for future generations.
Her husband, she said, recently gave a family with young children a tour and was surprised that the kids on the tour "weren't even alive then, so they had no direct memory of it as all of us do."
She added, “It’s important to remind people it was a very pivotal moment and the most challenging moment in our history.”
From there, the library transitions to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq—with a case displaying artifacts, including the gun that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was carrying when he was captured during the war in 2003. It also includes a deck of playing cards handed out to troops in Iraq featuring the faces of Saddam and other Iraqi leaders wanted for arrest.
On the issue of Iraq, a large display lists a lengthy “threat assessment” about Saddam's regime ahead of the 2003 invasion. It repeats many of the arguments the Bush administration made in justifying the war, including how Saddam had “refused to account for his chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs.”
But it’s also here where George Bush makes something of a mea culpa. The display notes that “no stockpiles of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) were found" although “post-invasion inspections confirmed that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to resume production.”
Bush is equally upfront about two other subjects: his handling of Hurricane Katrina and the economic collapse in fall 2008.
All are featured issues in the “Decision Points” theater, where visitors get the chance to choose their own path when presented with the information Bush had at the time he made his own calls in those cases.
“One of the things George really wanted was for people to know … how many decisions come to the desk of the president of the United States,” Laura Bush said. “He wanted to show people what it’s like to have to make decisions quickly with the press hounding you on what you’re going to decide and what you’re going to do, but also how you have to rely on the information you are given.”
What’s striking about the museum, however, is who’s not featured. Vice President Dick Cheney isn't prominently mentioned in any of the library’s exhibits—and is indeed featured less than the Bush family's two Scottish terriers, Barney and Miss Beazley, who are immortalized in a pair of bronze statues.
“There are statues of dogs but no Dick Cheney,” one reporter on the tour joked.
Karen Hughes, a longtime Bush adviser who was at the library, defended the approach, saying the library is more about “principles” than individual people. She said Cheney had been interviewed by library archivists, but none of that footage appeared to be on display on Wednesday morning during the media tour.
The library, Hughes said, “is about the big principles and ongoing policies that he and Mrs. Bush felt were most important to their public service.”
But Cheney’s absence was striking—particularly in the 9/11 section and the subsequent exhibit on the wars given his immense influence on George Bush at that time.
The library also has two large sections focusing on issues that, Bush and his aides believe, history will regard kindly, including his efforts to pass immigration reform and his work to stop AIDS in Africa. It also includes a scale replica of the Oval Office, where people can sit at a desk modeled after the one Bush used. That room looks out onto a replica of the White House Promenade and the Rose Garden—only this one features roses from Texas and other native plants.
“Very few people have actually ever had a chance to walk into the Oval Office,” Laura Bush said. “And this will give everyone who comes to the museum the chance to see what it’s like.”