DALLAS — All the living American presidents past and present are gathering in Dallas, a rare reunion to salute one of their own at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
Profound ideological differences and a bitter history of blaming each other for the nation’s woes will give way — if just for a day — to pomp and pleasantries Thursday as the five members of the most exclusive club in the world appear publicly together for the first time in years. For Bush, 66, the ceremony also marks his unofficial return to the public eye four years after the end of his deeply polarizing presidency.
On the sprawling, 23-acre university campus north of downtown Dallas housing his presidential library, museum and policy institute, Bush will be feted by his father, George H.W. Bush, and the two surviving Democrats, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. President Barack Obama, fresh off a fundraiser for Democrats the night before, will also speak.
In a reminder of his duties as the current Oval Office inhabitant, Obama will travel to Waco in the afternoon for a memorial for victims of last week’s deadly fertilizer plant explosion.
Key moments and themes from Bush’s presidency — the harrowing, the controversial and the inspiring — won’t be far removed from the minds of the presidents and guests assembled to dedicate the center, where interactive exhibits invite scrutiny of Bush’s major choices as president, such as the financial bailout, the Iraq War and the international focus on HIV and AIDS.
On display is the bullhorn that Bush, near the start of his presidency, used to punctuate the chaos at ground zero three days after 9/11. Addressing a crowd of rescue workers amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, Bush said: “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
“Memories are fading rapidly, and the profound impact of that attack is becoming dim with time,” Bush told The Associated Press earlier this month. “We want to make sure people remember not only the lives lost and the courage shown, but the lesson that the human condition overseas matters to the national security of our country.”
More than 70 million pages of paper records. Two hundred million emails. Four million digital photos. About 43,000 artifacts. Bush’s library will feature the largest digital holdings of any of the 13 presidential libraries under the auspices of the National Archives and Records Administration, officials said. Situated in a 15-acre urban park at Southern Methodist University, the center includes 226,000 square feet of indoor space.
A full-scale replica of the Oval Office as it looked during Bush’s tenure sits on the campus, as does a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. In the museum, visitors can gaze at a container of chads — the remnants of the famous Florida punch card ballots that played a pivotal role in the contested 2000 election that sent Bush to Washington.