Click image to see more photos. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
DALLAS—President Barack Obama praised his predecessor George W. Bush as a “good man” who should be commended for his resolve in trying to keep the country safe after the 9/11 attacks, and for his foresight in leading the fight for immigration reform.
Obama’s remarks came as he and the other four living presidents along with dozens of state, federal and foreign dignitaries gathered here to mark the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
Obama, who has been a fierce critic of Bush’s handling of the country, and his colleagues followed the tradition of past presidential library ceremonies by putting political differences aside. Obama praised what he called Bush’s “compassion,” “generosity” and “personality,” and said, “To know the man is to like the man.”
Remarking on the rare gathering of all five presidents, Obama spoke of the “exclusive club” that he shares with Bush as well as Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter—who were also in attendance. But, he said, “it’s more like a support group.”
He recalled finding a letter in his desk from George W. Bush upon arriving in the Oval Office in 2009 offering his successor advice.
“He knew I would come to learn what he had learned,” Obama said. “Being president above all is a humbling job. There are moments when you make mistakes. There are times when you wish you could turn back the clock.”
But, Obama noted, “We love this country and we do our best.”
Obama’s remarks came after former Clinton and Carter offered similar praise of Bush. Among other things, they touted Bush’s efforts to stop the spread of AIDS in Africa.
But Clinton’s remarks seemed more like a roast of his successor, as he spoke warmly of Bush and talked about how close he had gotten to the Bush family after he defeated George H.W. Bush. He joked of being “the black sheep son” and said his mother had told him not to speak too long at the event, turning to acknowledge former first lady Barbara Bush, who giggled in response.
He also praised George W. Bush’s recently discovered artistic skills as a painter, saying Barbara Bush had shared portraits her son had painted of animals. “I thought they were great,” Clinton said, adding that he had considered asking Bush to paint his portrait.
Clinton said he had hesitated, however, after seeing Bush’s self-portraits in the bathroom. “At my age, I think I should keep my suit,” Clinton said, as Bush laughed wildly.
A bittersweet moment came when George H.W. Bush briefly addressed the crowd, thanking them for coming. The elder Bush was hospitalized in December, and the family worried he might not make it to see his son unveil his presidential library.
From the podium later, George W. Bush praised his father for “teaching him how to be a president, but first teaching him how to be a man,” and said it was the first time in history that father-and-son presidents had attended the opening of each other’s libraries.
Addressing the crowd of more than 8,000 supporters and former staffers, Bush repeatedly became emotional as he thanked those who had turned out to mark the library’s opening. At one point he joked, “There was a time in my life when I wasn’t likely to be found in a library, much less founding one.”
In praising his ex-staffers, Bush said, “History is going to show I served with great people.” He then gave a shout-out to former Vice President Dick Cheney, who is barely mentioned in the library’s exhibits, telling him, “I’m proud to call you a friend.”
In brief remarks, Bush recalled the goals that led him while in office.
“In democracy, the purpose of public office is not to fulfill personal ambition,” he said, echoing a line that he’s used throughout his career. “Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right, polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they held.”
At the end of his speech, Bush audibly choked up. With tears in his eyes, he returned to this seat, where he smiled and threw three fingers in the air in the shape of a”W.”