It is often said that the peaceful transfer of power is what makes us unique among world powers throughout history. On Thursday, I had the privilege of being in attendance as the five living U.S. Presidents honored one of their own with the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum.
It was a beautiful day in Dallas on the campus of Southern Methodist University, which is a befitting setting for such a piece of history. I was but a mere face in the crowd at the event, but the feelings of pride and patriotism were overwhelming. In full disclosure, I am a George W. Bush apologist. He was the first President I voted for and I was deployed as a volunteer in his 2004 reelection bid with the Republican National Committee. I began my political and professional career in Washington D.C. in January 2001 as President Bush took office and was in attendance at both inaugurals. I have always felt a special connection to his presidency.
Since many people reading this saw the actual ceremony on TV, I will strive to give perspective from being at the event(s). I watched the dedication on a big screen with 8,000 of my closest friends on a field adjacent to the Bush Institute and Library. The seats on the library porch were reserved for family, foreign dignitaries, elected officials and press. There must have also been a student section based on the audible cheer when ‘Dubya’ referred to the student body as “awesome.” It was a powerful hour ceremony that included speeches from the five Presidents. President George H.W. Bush was a crowd favorite as he spoke briefly from a wheelchair and then stood to wave to the many onlookers. The man of the hour gave an emotional speech that ended with tears in his eyes and a lump in his throat. I have watched thousands of speeches by George W. over the years and I have never seen this before. Several speculated it was because of the weight of the moment, while others thought it was the human side that he is now allowed to show since leaving the White House. I agree with the latter. The human element seemed a central theme of the Library itself.
In the afternoon, I attended the “Bush-Cheney Alumni” BBQ. Country music and traditional Texas cuisine set the tone. President Bush gave a brief speech in which he talked about missing the people in the White House and the personal side of the job. He and Laura paused a few times to wave to someone in the crowd or to call someone out by first name. After his remarks, he made his way through a very long receiving line where he paused often to take a photo, get caught up on someone’s life story or just shake a hand or give a hug. One of the benefits of being 6’2” is that I was able to put a hand high above the crowd when he came my way, which he grabbed and squeezed strongly. It was a moment I’ll never forget and one that further endears me to the 43rd President. After a long good-bye, he and Laura disappeared until the evening street fair, lighting of Freedom Hall and festive fireworks. It was a great day.
The next day the Library hosted private tours. The public grand opening is today. One of the first things you notice when you enter the foyer is the statues of 41 and 43 on the outside patio. The President has a famous admiration for his father (and really all of his family) and this was evident throughout. The first exhibit is the campaign to the White House. Up next is the very somber 9/11 exhibit. A mangled beam from the World Trade Center is the centerpiece surrounded by footage from the day in chronological order and the names of every victim etched into the wall. This was especially emotional for me. I was a young Hill staffer that day and I remember calling my parents and my wife (we were dating at the time), not knowing if I would ever talk to them again. I remember the sound of the sonic boom as military planes left Bolling AFB probably en route to Pennsylvania. I remember evacuating the Capitol complex to shouts of “run” from the police. I remember seeing the Speaker of the House being airlifted off the West Lawn. I remember the rumors and the speculation and the very real feeling that we were under attack. I also remember the rallying cry of freedom that went forth from that day. From the White House to the steps of Congress to a field in Pennsylvania, the message was loud and clear: We are Americans and this will not stand. I visited the Flight 93 memorial some years later and reflected about what might have been had those heroes not stepped forward. The countless lives they saved; the indescribable damage they averted. I looked with misty eyes at the names we all remember, Todd Beamer and Mark Bingham, among the thousands of others. This tribute was about them, not the President. Other prominent features of this exhibit were the baseball from the first pitch of the World Series at Yankee Stadium, where with all of America watching he threw a perfect strike and the bullhorn that defined a Presidency when Bush famously remarked atop a hill of rubble “I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear from all of us soon.”
There is a replica of the Oval Office and a statue of Barney (the beloved “First Dog” of the Bush White House). There is a tribute to literacy with several books Laura handpicked, a collection of autographed baseballs, medals of honor, videos and a lot of other memorabilia one would expect of a Presidential Library. There are also thousands of documents and correspondence, including 200 million e-mails. In fact, the President joked at the BBQ that not one of them was from him, but that several people in the audience could expect a call. There is also a section dedicated to the employees of the White House. Not the oval office personnel or the advisors, but the people who run the residence. During the 8-year Bush Administration, a photographer took shots of every usher, butler and maid and put them into a book, which is on display along with reflections by many of them about what it means to work in the White House. It was yet another human touch.
The cornerstone of the Library is the Decision Points Theater. One of the principal focuses of this museum is to put the visitor in the shoes of the President. In the opening video, Bush remarks that you can’t truly appreciate the weight of the office until you’re sitting at the table and every advisor, cabinet secretary and intelligence official turns to you and asks “Mr. President – what do you want to do?” The Decision Points Theater is designed to give you that perspective. It is a six-minute, interactive, video game in which each participant selects a key moment during the Bush tenure. The decision point with the most votes becomes the simulation for the entire theater. The room as a whole and individually hears from several scripted video actors (House, Senate, taxpayer, Secretary, etc), uses a sliding scale to vote on how much they agree or disagree with the comments and then votes on what to do. There are also several interruptions on the big screen for “breaking news.” In my case, the room chose the financial crisis and voted to not do bailouts. President Bush then appears and gives his rationale for why he made the decision he did once again putting a human element into the decision.
The Library itself is very simple. I have only been to the Reagan Library and this seemed small by comparison, although I heard it is the second biggest in the system. The gift shop is stark and I noticed several items highlighted “43rd President of the United States” not “President George W. Bush.” There was a feeling in Dallas that was pervasive during his presidency; that the office is more important than the man. The Library is most definitely a tribute to the office and the time, not the man. And, don’t even think about using the word “legacy.” I believe history will be kind to the Bush Presidency. Recent polls indicate that it will be. If all else fails, the George W. Bush Library and Museum will stand, as President Clinton put it, as “…the latest grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”