Presidents Overlook Differences At Bush Center Opening

All five living presidents were together in Dallas, Texas, Thursday, for the opening of the George W. Bush presidential library and museum. The new $250 million library is on the campus of Southern Methodist University.

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The president's appearance at that memorial service came on the same day he joined with all his living predecessors. He met with Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, whose presidential library was dedicated in Texas.

A photograph, sent out on Twitter incidentally, by former President Clinton, shows the five men in a circle, chatting. Three Democrats joined two Republicans on a day when political differences were overlooked.

Here's NPR national political correspondent Don Gonyea.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HAIL TO THE CHIEF")

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: They walked across the stage in the crowd of 10,000 at the outdoor ceremony at Southern Methodist University, stood and applauded. The program featured military bands and choruses and prayer, but the highlight was the five presidents.

Jimmy Carter, now 88 years old, wore sunglasses in the bright morning sunlight. Carter has been a strong critic of Bush on Iraq and other issues, but yesterday he sang President Bush's praises for helping to find a resolution to the long civil war in Sudan and for coming through with development funds for Africa.

PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: So Mr. President, let me say that I'm filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you've made to the most needy people on Earth. Thank you very much.

GONYEA: Next was the elder President Bush - also 88 but frail. He spoke from his wheelchair.

PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: Thank you all for coming and to all of those who made this marvelous museum possible, we thank you especially. And we're glad to be here. God bless America and thank you very much.

GONYEA: Bill Clinton teased his host, saying the new library was the latest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history. He then cited George W. Bush's work as president on AIDS relief in Africa.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I have personally seen the faces of some of the millions of people who are alive today because of it.

GONYEA: Clinton also dropped this piece of news.

CLINTON: A couple of times a year in his second term, George Bush would call me just to talk politics. And a chill went up and down my spine when Laura said that all their records were digitized.

(LAUGHTER)

CLINTON: Dear God, I hope there's no record of those conversations in this vast and beautiful building.

GONYEA: Now it was President Obama's turn.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: When all the living former presidents are together, it's also a special day for our democracy. We've been called the world's most exclusive club, and we do have a pretty nice clubhouse.

GONYEA: But he said it's really more like a support group.

OBAMA: There are moments where you make mistakes. There are times where you wish you could turn back the clock. And what I know is true about President Bush, and I hope my successor will say about me, is that we love this country and we do our best.

GONYEA: President Obama veered into current politics. He cited President Bush's unsuccessful efforts to fix the nation's immigration system seven years ago.

OBAMA: I am hopeful that this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and members of Congress who are here today, that we bring it home.

GONYEA: If that happens, he said, large credit would go to President Bush. Through it all, Bush listened and laughed and sometimes teared up. In his remarks, he said his administration stood by its convictions even when unpopular.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I dedicate this library with an unshakeable faith in the future of our country. It's the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States. Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation's best days lie ahead. God bless.

GONYEA: George W. Bush, the 43rd president, along with - as he put it - numbers 39, 41, 42 and 44. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Dallas.

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