(DALLAS) — George W. Bush’s legacy has officially been enshrined in Dallas.
At a bipartisan gathering of all five living U.S. presidents, foreign dignitaries, and former administration officials at Southern Methodist University on Thursday, the 43rd president welcomed the opening of his library and museum, the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Bush cracked jokes and offered a heartfelt defense of his time in office, thanking the presidents who spoke before him and all the first ladies in attendance.
“There was a time in my life when I wasn’t likely to be found in a library, much less found one,” Bush joked.
The 43rd president thanked the nation and assessed how history will judge his presidency. Bush obliquely defended his decision to invade Iraq — a war that became deeply unpopular and shaped the widespread opposition he faced before leaving office.
“The political winds blow left and right, the polls rise and fall, supporters come and go, but in the end leaders are judged by the convictions they hold,” Bush said. “As president I tried to act on those principles every day. It wasn’t always easy, and it certainly wasn’t always popular.”
Bush praised members of his administration, singling out former Vice President Dick Cheney as a trusted ally, and praised their collective legacy.
“When future generations come to his library and study this administration, they’re going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions,” Bush said. “We kept the American people safe.”
With his father on hand, the 43rd president thanked George H.W. Bush, who delivered brief remarks while remaining seated at the ceremony.
“My dad taught me how to be a president,” George W. Bush said of his father, the 41st U.S. president. “Forty-one, it is awesome that you are here today.”
With three Democratic presidents on hand offering praise for Bush, the day lacked partisan undertones. All praised his love for America, his personality, and his work to fight the spread of AIDS and HIV in Africa with the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) — the Bush program most often lauded by Democrats.
“He doesn’t put on any pretenses, he takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man,” said President Obama, who spent much of his 2008 campaign attacking George W. Bush’s decisions and policies.
“We remember his commitment to reaching across the aisle to unlikely allies like [former Democratic senator] Ted Kennedy, because he believed we had to reform our schools…and that we had to reform our broken immigration system, and that this progress is only possible when we do it together,” Obama said.
“I like President Bush,” former President Bill Clinton said. “We do a lot of speeches together, and I like it when we have disagreements. He’s disarmingly direct.”
Clinton also joked about Bush’s hobby of oil painting: “Your mother showed me some of your landscapes and animal paintings, and I thought they were great,” Clinton said. “I seriously considered calling and asking you to do a portrait of me.”
Former President Jimmy Carter recalled Bush’s contested 2000 election — calling himself one of the only volunteer Democrats on stage at Bush’s inauguration in 2001. After the ceremony, Bush offered to help Carter — and Carter asked him to do something about the civil war in Sudan. Bush, Carter said, followed through by appointing former Republican Senator John Danforth as a special envoy.
“In January, 2005 there was a peace treaty between north and south Sudan,” Carter said. “George W. Bush is responsible for that.”
As the ceremony began, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced a slew of world leaders and Bush allies from his time in the White House. Among those in attendance were former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Saudi Arabian Prince Bandar bin Sultan, former South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
Before the presidents spoke, former first lady Laura Bush remembered some of the most troubling times of George W. Bush’s presidency — those that also came to define his time in the White House. The museum, which houses a piece of the World Trade Center, will serve as a place to preserve those moments, Laura Bush said.
“Here we remember the heartbreak and the heroism of September 11,” she said.
“Throughout this center, I’m reminded of my husband. I remember the image of George standing amid the rubble of the World Trade Center, his arm around the shoulder of a retired firefighter who grabbed his old gear to go search for the missing,” Laura Bush said. “I remember his quiet visits with the families of the fallen, sharing their stories and their tears, and I remember how steadfast and steady he was for eight years.”
Copyright 2013 ABC News Radio
John Newsome and Anne Woolsey, CNN