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All Living Presidents Gather in Dallas to Dedicate George W. Bush Library

April 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Library was attended by its namesake and the four other living presidents. Jeffrey Brown discusses presidential legacy with Ellen Fitzpatrick of the University of New Hampshire, University of Texas at Austin's H.W. Brands and presidential historian Michael Beschloss.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now a new library and a legacy on display, as five presidents gathered in Texas.

More than four years after leaving office, George W. Bush returned to the spotlight today. All the living presidents past and present were on hand for the dedication of his presidential library and museum, along with numerous other dignitaries, family and friends.

The 23-acre complex on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas also houses a policy institute. It will hold 70 million pages of paper records, four million digital photographs, and 43,000 artifacts. And as former first lady Laura Bush pointed out, it is designed to engage the public.

LAURA BUSH, Former First Lady: We welcome scholars and students and the community at large to gather here for generations to come. The center is designed to be human in scale, because, like the White House, presidential libraries belong to all Americans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Visitors will see exhibits highlighting key events in Bush’s presidency, including the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina and the financial bailout. A space devoted to the 9/11 attacks has steel beams from the World Trade Center.

As president, of course, Bush’s response to those crises provoked strong political divisions, but none of that was in evidence today.

Instead, former President Jimmy Carter praised him for providing humanitarian aid to African nations.

FORMER PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Mr. President, let me say that I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you have made to the most needy people on Earth.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, spoke from a wheelchair after a recent lengthy bout with bronchitis.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE H.W. BUSH: What a beautiful day in Dallas. It’s a great pleasure to be here to honor our son, our oldest son. And this is very special for Barbara and me. And thank you all for coming. And to all 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Former President Bill Clinton defeated the elder Bush’s bid for reelection in 1992, but they have had warm relations as the years passed.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: You know, starting with my work with President George H.W. Bush on the tsunami and the aftermath of Katrina, people began to joke that I was getting so close to the Bush family, I had become the black sheep son.

FORMER PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: My mother told me not to talk too long today.

And, Barbara, I will not let you down.

JEFFREY BROWN: The former president commended the interactive approach of the Bush center. Some exhibits allow visitors to decide how they would respond in a crisis.

FORMER PRESIDENT CLINTON: Debate and difference is an important part of every free society. By asking us to join him in the decisions he made and inviting us to make different ones if we choose, he has honored that deepest American tradition.

JEFFREY BROWN: And President Obama paid homage to his predecessor by extolling the down-to-earth Bush persona.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: To know the man is to like the man, because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Politics wasn’t entirely absent from the day’s proceedings, as the current president pointed to Mr. Bush’s own push for immigration reform.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, seven years ago, President Bush restarted an important conversation by speaking with the American people about our history as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants.

And even though comprehensive immigration reform has taken a little longer than any of us expected, 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. And if we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush.

JEFFREY BROWN: When his turn came, the nation’s 43rd president began his remarks by delivering a joke at his own expense.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: There was a time in my life when I wasn’t likely to be found at a library, much less found one.

JEFFREY BROWN: But in a serious vein, he also reflected on the way he approached his time in office.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: 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 hold.

And my deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom.

As president, I tried to act on these principles every day. It wasn’t always easy and it certainly wasn’t always popular. One of the benefits of freedom is that people can disagree. It’s fair to say I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: But when future generations come to this library and study this administration, they’re going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the end, President Bush gave way to the emotions of the day.

FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in the future of our country. It was 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum cost $250 million dollars to build, raised privately by the Bush Foundation. It will open to the public on May 1st, one of 13 presidential libraries operated under the auspices of the National Archives.

And we look at libraries and legacies now with three historians, Ellen Fitzpatrick of the University of New Hampshire, H.W. Brands from the University of Texas at Austin, and NewsHour regular Michael Beschloss.

Well, Michael, let me start with you and with a general question. What’s the purpose of these libraries? How much do they help shape people’s views of former presidents?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, Presidential Historian: Well, the museum part of a library is basically — and this is true of most of these libraries — an effort to give you the president’s point of view on his own presidency and that of his partisans. So people who come to see those museums, it’s stimulating. They learn a lot about the presidency. But I think they all accept that it is almost like walking into the president’s own memoir.

The part that is exciting to us historians, of course, is the archive where letters and documents, national security stuff, is opened as time goes on. That’s what really moves us to reconsider a president.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ellen Fitzpatrick, in the specific case of George W. Bush, how fixed do you think is his legacy and what — what will people be looking at in terms of him when they look at this library?

ELLEN FITZPATRICK, University of New Hampshire: I think that his legacy is actually very fluid.

And it’s poignant that this dedication occurs after this terrible terrorist bombing that just took place in Boston, because his presidency, as the library and museum itself showcases, was deeply affected by the events of September 11th and the terrible tragedy that really overshadowed his presidency.

And, in that sense, I think there’s a poignancy to the timing of this dedication. His legacy is unfolding. And I think that in all likelihood over time, as the opinion polls seem to suggest, there will be greater sympathy to the burden that he bore in trying to come to grips with the worst peacetime attack in American history on the homeland.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bill Brands, what do you think about that question about how fixed is his legacy and what are people looking for in this library and museum?

H.W. BRANDS, University of Texas at Austin: I think there are two aspects of the legacy question.

One is the effect of George Bush’s presidency on the United States. The other is the effect of his presidency on the world. The effect of the presidency on the world, that is a long-term project and we won’t know the outcome of that for 10 years, 20 years, 30 years.

But his legacy in the United States, I think — I think George Bush is going to be remembered as the presidency — as the president who presided over the end of the American century, at a time when the American century was when America kept guns and butter both.

And during the Bush years, we discovered, well, we’re not going to be able to have guns and butter both, and we might not be able to have either one. The invasion of Iraq is going to be — is already being seen as something that was unnecessary and very expensive. And so presidents, including the current president, are going to go very slowly into anything like that in the future.

And then on the domestic side, there is the whole business of the tax cuts. And the Republican Party now, as a result of the Bush years, has signed on to the idea that you cut taxes first and worry about the deficit later. That’s really a reversal of what Republicans used to stand for.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael, all of those things, of course, are still very much in play and to that extent quite fluid. You I think had a chance to go to the library before it was completed, I understand, before all the exhibitions were there. But do you have a sense of the portrait of George Bush that it wants to present to us?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Absolutely. And the centerpiece, of course, is what he did to keep terrorism at bay and keep the country pretty safe.

So that’s at the center of it. They do have one thing that is sort of an innovation, a growing innovation at some of these presidential libraries, which is a theater where you can go in and deal with some of the decisions that the president had to make. In this case, for instance, do you go to war against Iraq, the arguments for both sides?

So that does help, I think, educate the people who do come in. But I guess I would be a little bit more on the side that George Bush’s reputation is more fluid, because I think a president’s reputation doesn’t really begin to gel until about 40 or 50 years later, because that’s how long it really takes us to understand, for instance, in this case, what the Middle East looks like, what the war against terrorism looks like, what the economy looks like.

And, also, we will have all those documents that will enable to us see things from the inside. So, in almost every presidency, it looks very different later on.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the other aspect of this, Ellen Fitzpatrick, I will start this with you, that we saw today of all the presidents gathered? It’s this very exclusive club.

And you get to see them, listen to them, think about what they have done after their presidency. George W. Bush, for example, has taken himself largely out of the public eye for four years.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, it is an interesting point to see them all gathered together.

I was thinking today that there is not a single one of these presidents who didn’t have during the course of their administration some terribly difficult and often very obvious and disappointing reversal that they had to come to terms with and that in some sense or another damaged — quote — “their legacy.”

But I think Michael’s point is very important, which is George Bush was quoted yesterday as saying that he will wait for the final verdict of history. He won’t be around to hear what it is. The fact of the matter is, there is no final verdict. That is, every generation rewrites and revisits history.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: … put out of business, Ellen.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Well, it’s a good thing that it is as undetermined.

But historians themselves are not only scholars; they’re citizens. And as they visit the past, they come back with new questions. And so Harry Truman was a president who left office not terribly popular, and who has been written about often since then. His reputation has improved.

In the last couple of years, there have been several books about Thomas Jefferson. So we continue to revisit these presidents. We reevaluate. We reassess. We ask new questions. We have new evidence. And it’s a very, very interesting part of history that it lives. It’s a paradox. We study the past, but it lives.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that a panel of historians finds history fluid, right, and legacies fluid.

Well, Bill Brands …

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: … keep us doing this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

Bill Brands, come in on that, the question of especially about former presidents and how they, how they act after office and how they are later seen.

H.W. BRANDS: Yes.

I think that every president gets a positive bounce from the opening of his library, because this array of presidents is the closest thing we in the United States have to a pantheon. And all of a sudden, you are elevated to the realm of president. And it’s a very small and select club.

And in an odd way, the best thing for a president’s historical reputation is to leave office under a cloud, because as Michael and Ellen pointed out, historians are inveterate revisionists. We always are asking new questions.

And if a president leaves office unpopular, sooner or later, we will find a way to challenge that conventional wisdom. So, in the case of Bush, who left amid the financial crisis 2008 and 2009, really, there’s no place his reputation could go but up.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Michael, that is an interesting point. I mean, I’m not sure that’s the way they want to go out of office, right, but the suggestion is that they can move up in history, huh?

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: No, I think that’s right.

They can. And, you know, you were talking about ex-presidents. Lyndon Johnson went back to Texas in 1969. He was absolutely miserable, A., because Americans were so angry at him over Vietnam and blamed him for it, and, B., because politics was his whole life. It was a very difficult withdrawal.

One thing you can say about George W. Bush, he’s gone back to Dallas. He’s painting, he’s playing golf, he spends a lot of time with his friends and family. This is not someone who shows the signs of having gone into an emotional tailspin.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Bill Brands, you’re there in Texas. He is a son of Texas, of course.

H.W. BRANDS: It’s very interesting how little presence he has had even in Texas.

And I am with Michael in saying that this seems to me somebody who is very well-adjusted. The presidency was an important part of his life, but politics wasn’t the sum of his life. And I think he’s moved on to the next phase. I think he’s been very smart in staying out of the limelight, because presidents who can’t figure out what to do with themselves after they leave office generally get themselves into trouble of one sort or another.

JEFFREY BROWN: H.W. Bill Brands, Ellen Fitzpatrick, and Michael Beschloss, thank you, all three, very much.

ELLEN FITZPATRICK: Thank you.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Thanks, Jeff.

H.W. BRANDS: My pleasure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you can watch all the presidential speeches from today in full on our YouTube page.