Giving a broad-strokes defense of his eight years in the White House, former president George W. Bush celebrated the dedication of his Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas on Thursday.
“We expanded freedom at home by raising standards in schools and lowering taxes for everybody. We liberated nations from dictatorship and freed people from AIDS,” he said.
And he added, alluding to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, “when our nation came under attack we made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe,” he said.
“My deepest conviction – the guiding principle of the administration – is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom,” he declared. Freedom, he said, “sustains dissidents bound by chains, believers huddled in underground churches and voters who risk their lives to cast their ballot.”
In the audience were the nation’s three other former living presidents – George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter – as well as current commander in chief Barack Obama. Also in attendance were pivotal figures from the Bush era, including former Vice President Dick Cheney and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
To no one’s surprise, the ex-presidents’ remarks -- and Obama's too -- generally shied away from re-litigating the controversies of Bush’s presidency. Alluding to those events, including the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Bush said, “One of the benefits of freedom is that people can disagree. It’s fair to say I created plenty of opportunity to exercise that right.”
Bush singled out Cheney for praise. “From the day I asked Dick to run with me, he served with loyalty, principle, and strength,” Bush said.
Bush ended his speech with tears in his eyes.
Obama used his speech to promote his top policy goal at the moment – persuading Congress to pass a bill to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws.
He lauded Bush for trying to enact an immigration bill in 2006 and said “I’m hopeful that this year with the help of Speaker (John) Boehner, and some of the senators and members of congress who are here today, that we bring it home.”
And if an immigration overhaul becomes law this year, Obama said “it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of George W. Bush.”
Obama praised Bush for “reaching across the aisle to unlikely allies like Ted Kennedy because he believed we had to reform our school in ways that helped every child learn, not just some.”
Obama portrayed Bush as a man of compassion and generosity, a man who “is comfortable in his own skin” and who “takes the job seriously but doesn’t take himself too seriously. He’s a good man.”
Clinton also touched on immigration, thanking Bush for working to revamp the nation’s immigration policies – “and I hope the Congress will follow President Obama’s effort to follow the example you set.”
And Clinton delivered some wry humor in his remarks. He called the Bush library “the latest grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
He noted that he’d had phone conversations with Bush “a couple of times a year in his second term ... just to talk politics.”
Then he added “A chill went up and down my spine when Laura (Bush) said that all their records were digitized. Dear God, I hope there’s no record of those conversations in this vast and beautiful building.”
Carter, the first former president to speak, praised Bush for appointing a special envoy to help end a prolonged war between north and south Sudan.
It was a gathering of men whose political careers stretch back to 1963 when Carter was elected to the Georgia legislature and 1964 when the elder Bush ran unsuccessfully for the United States Senate.
Alluding to the possible future of the Bush political dynasty, former First Lady Barbara Bush skeptically told TODAY’s Matt Lauer Thursday, “There are other people out there that are very qualified and we’ve had enough Bushes.”
When asked whether she expects former Florida governor Jeb Bush to seek the presidency, Mrs. Bush said, “It’s a great country. There are a lot of great families and it’s not just four families.”
The dedication of the Bush library has spurred a wave of retrospective analyses of his presidency, reviving the debates over his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States and his decision, with a congressional vote of authorization, to invade Iraq in 2003.
Obama’s election in 2008 was at least partly due to the electorate’s war weariness after five years of military entanglement in Iraq.
But Obama has continued some of Bush’s counter-terrorism policies and greatly expanded Bush’s use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to kill terrorist suspects in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
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