You've probably heard there was a little ceremony in Dallas on Thursday to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Center. The event included speeches by all the living U.S. presidents to officially open the 43rd president’s library, museum and policy think tank. But as former President Bill Clinton joked, it also marked the beginning of something else.
“I told President Obama that this was the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history," Clinton said.
It was a joke, with a ring of truth. Every president has victories that are trumpeted in his presidential library along with controversies and defeats that, depending on your point of view, are massaged a bit, glossed over or rewritten.
The Bush library takes some of the most controversial moments of the his presidency, including the decision to go to war in Iraq, his administration’s response to Hurricane Katrina and the 2008 financial meltdown, and showcases them in what’s called Decision Points Theater. The exhibit gives you snippets of information that was available to the president at the time of his decision.
One segment features a CIA agent, portrayed by an actor, telling you, “Intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction," while the next adviser points out, "We do not have any intelligence that indicates Saddam Hussein is planning an imminent attack on the U.S."
You then make your own choice based on what you’ve been told — sort of a presidential Choose Your Own Adventure.
But even before anyone steps foot in the museum, the rehabilitation of Bush’s legacy began with speeches by the three living Democratic presidents, starting with Jimmy Carter, who praised Bush for promising and then delivering a peace plan for Sudan.
"In January 2005 there was a peace treaty between North and South Sudan that ended a war that had been going on for 21 years. George W. Bush is responsible for that," Carter said to cheers. "And that was the first of his great contributions to the countries in Africa."
Clinton followed by talking about Bush’s passage of the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief in Africa.
“No president of my party could have passed that through the Congress," Clinton said. "And I work all over Africa with our health access initiative and AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria building health systems. I have personally seen the faces of people who are alive today because of it."
He also pointed to Bush’s efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform, an effort that didn’t yield a new law. But Clinton said he hoped the current Congress would follow the example Bush set and join Obama in passing a bill this year.
Obama even went as far as to peg any successful immigration effort to Bush’s past efforts.
“If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush," Obama said.
As for Bush, he didn’t use the day to pat himself on the back for accomplishments during his eight years in office. He even acknowledged that there were many people not all that happy about his time in office.
“One of the benefits of freedom is that people can disagree. It’s fair to say that I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right," Bush joked with the crowd. "But when future generations come to this library and study this administration, they’re gonna find out that we stayed true to our convictions."
So like or dislike his administration. But Bush hopes the library will help people understand that every decision made was, as he puts it, based on his principles.