Dallas, Texas – They’re streaming onto the grounds of Southern Methodist University, at 7:30 in the morning. They’re dressed in their Sunday best, too — even though it’s Thursday. They, we, have come for the dedication ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. That will begin at 10, but we were told to be here very early, to go through the security rigmarole. At the ceremony, five U.S. presidents will appear: the incumbent and the four living former ones.
People have traveled to Dallas from all over the world — but mainly they’ve traveled from somewhere in Texas, I think. Observing them, I get the impression they’ve been supporting the Bush family for a long time. Is this kind of a last hurrah? Well, Jeb — who became a Floridian, true — may run for president. And his son George P. is running for land commissioner here in Texas.
George W. is suddenly back in the national media — because of this ceremony, to be sure, but also because of the terror attack in Boston a week and a half ago: It reminded people of 9/11, and of the president’s resoluteness in the face of it. This week, journalists have been writing reassessments of Bush. One of them was by Ron Fournier, the veteran Washington reporter, and it was titled “Go Ahead, Admit It: George W. Bush Is a Good Man.” To some of us, that’s like saying, “Go ahead, admit it: Two plus two equals four.”
Nancy Pelosi, the Democrats’ leader in the House, provoked a few gasps last summer when she described Bush as “really a lovely man.”
In a blogpost this week, the Daily Telegraph’s Will Heaven reminded us of some of the old venom. He cited the British historian Nigel Hamilton, who in a recent book claims that Bush is “ill-read to the point of near-illiteracy.” What’s the point of literacy if you have to read lies like that?
The GWB Center at SMU is a combination of library, museum, and public-policy institute. It holds some 40,000 artifacts. These include a container of chads (a symbol of Election 2000); the bullhorn used by Bush at Ground Zero; and the pistol taken from Saddam Hussein when he was dragged from his “spider hole.”
Serving as architect for the center was Robert A. M. Stern, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture. When Stern’s design was unveiled in 2009, Philip Kennicott of the Washington Post wrote of the difficulties of designing a building for W. Architects are defined by “intellectual sophistication” and “aesthetic refinement,” he said, and Bush is “seemingly hostile” to those things. At least he said “seemingly.” Earlier this month, by the way, Kennicott won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.
This day in Dallas, there is not only a Bush celebration but a Bush denunciation, too — a series of counter-events called “The People’s Response.” Some of the People featured in the Response are Code Pink, Phil Donahue, and Lawrence Wilkerson. This last figure was chief of staff to Colin Powell. In citing Bush’s mistakes, critics tend to say, “Iraq! Torture! Katrina!” A few of us are tempted to say, “Powell!”
For celebrators and denouncers, the weather is heavenly in this city: about 70 degrees, without a trace of humidity. Here at SMU, the atmosphere is one of a happy, elegant party. There are celebrities in the crowd, including athletes: Troy Aikman, for example, and Dikembe Mutombo. The former was a quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys; the latter was a center for the Houston Rockets.
Waiting for 10 o’clock, we are entertained by singing groups, and by a slideshow. The Bush presidency is depicted in a glowing, heroic light, to the accompaniment of Coplandesque music. We see the president with his fellow statesmen, but also with dissidents and former political prisoners. One of them is Kang Chol-Hwan, a survivor of the North Korean gulag. “If our opinion-shapers were of a different nature,” I think, for the thousandth time, “Bush would be known as a human-rights president.”
At last, the ceremony begins, starting with a parade of special guests, led by W.’s vice president, Dick Cheney. He is wearing a cowboy hat and looks thin and determined. Then come children of deceased presidents — led by the Johnson girls, both of whom look chic and splendid. Then come the first ladies, all of them from Rosalynn Carter onward, except for Nancy Reagan, who is apparently unable to make such a trip. Michelle Obama looks embarrassed to be here, a little contemptuous — nose-holding.
And I don’t know about you, but I sort of forget that Hillary Clinton was first lady. She has been other things since.
Out troop the husbands, the presidents: Obama, Bush 43, Clinton, Bush 41 (in a wheelchair), Carter. Bush 43, of course, gets a bigger cheer — a much bigger cheer — than Obama. I think, “Is this the only place where that would happen?” I have another thought: “Say Romney had won last November. Would the Obamas have shown up for this?” They would have had to, right? It would have been a miserable, almost impossible duty, though.
Condoleezza Rice comes to the podium, to acknowledge distinguished guests in the audience. Among them are Tony Blair, John Howard, and José María Aznar — in other words, the Bush-friendliest foreign leaders. When Rice acknowledges Silvio Berlusconi, there are a few titters. For once, Bill Clinton may not be the randiest statesman in the house. In reading the long list of names, Rice performs feats of pronunciation. She throws a “th” into “Aznar.” And she tries to pronounce “Bahrain” Arabicly — which is a little awkward.
In due course, we have the Pledge of Allegiance. When all rise, Mutombo turns to the people behind him and says, with a bright wonderful smile, “Can you see?” (He is 7 foot 2.)
The first president to speak is Carter, wearing shades. He gives a good, crisp, vigorous speech. He credits Bush with settling the war between North Sudan and South Sudan (known formally as the Second Sudanese Civil War). I remember something Congressman Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican, once told me: He would have nominated Bush for the Nobel Peace Prize, but Khartoum was committing genocide in Darfur, and it would have looked odd to make a Sudan-related nomination.
In further remarks, Carter praises Bush for his help to Africa in general. And he ends with an exceptionally warm encomium: “Mr. President, let me say that I’m filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you,” because of “the great contributions you’ve made to the most needy people on earth.”
I have another memory: One of the best speeches President Reagan ever gave was on October 1, 1986 — Carter’s 62nd birthday. They were dedicating the Carter Library in Atlanta. Carter responded, “As I listened to you talk, I understood more clearly than I ever did in my life why you won in 1980 and I lost.”
On the stage at SMU, Bush 41 is next to speak. He does so from his wheelchair. He has no notes. “It’s a great pleasure to be here,” he says, “to honor our son” — then he switches to “our oldest son,” for there are three others, two of whom aren’t really famous. He continues, “This is very special for Barbara and me.” Is Bush the last person in America to use “I” and “me” correctly?
His remarks last a grand total of 25 seconds. Afterward, W. shakes his hand and says, “Good job.” His father cracks, “Too long?” which breaks up his son.
As for Clinton, he’s on pretty good behavior. I could pick at him, but I should give him a rest. He notes what some people have said: He’s so close to the Bush family, he has become “the black-sheep son.” And that gives me a memory of W. himself — who in 1991, during his father’s presidency, identified himself to Queen Elizabeth as the black sheep of the family. Exactly ten years later, he was president himself.
Like Carter, Clinton heaps praise on Bush for his activism in Africa. This is obviously something Democrats can concert on. And he enlists Bush in the cause of the present immigration reform in Congress, whether Bush wants to be enlisted or not.
President Obama does the same thing, and he, too, repeats the praise concerning Africa. Overall, he is good and gracious. He refers to 43 as “George,” and does so with apparently genuine friendliness. “To know the man is to like the man,” says Obama, “because he’s comfortable in his own skin. . . . He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”
Giving the final speech, Bush is completely himself: folksy, formal, cocky, humble, idealistic, hard-boiled — that whole, strange package. He pays tribute to Cheney, saying, “I’m proud to call you ‘friend.’” It sounds to me the slightest bit strained. I think of the dispute between the president and the vice president over the pardon, or non-pardon, of Scooter Libby, the Cheney aide.
In the last couple of weeks, Bush has become a grandfather for the first time, and he talks of the “joy” of it. The child is a girl named Mila. I don’t think I’ve heard that name since Brian Mulroney was prime minister of Canada, and the country’s first lady was Mila. She was “Yugoslav,” as we used to say.
Naturally, Bush talks about freedom, his perpetual subject. The idea of freedom “sustains dissidents bound by chains” and “believers huddled in underground churches.” Freedom this, freedom that. It occurs to me that Bush is talking more about freedom in this one speech than Obama has done in all the speeches he has given as president. But that can’t be true (quite).
Bush also answers a criticism of the Left, I believe. In recent years, they’ve been painting conservatives as dog-eat-dog Darwinians, radical individualists, caring for nothing but the Self. Bush says, “Independence from the state does not mean isolation from each other. A free society thrives when neighbors help neighbors, and the strong protect the weak, and public policies promote private compassion.”
Winding up, he says, “I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in the future of our country.” I think of what Martin Luther King said at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo: “I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind.” Bush says, “Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead.” Does he really mean it, or is he expressing more like a wish? Either way, his face is wet with tears.
And the crowd goes nuts. People thrust three fingers in the air, in a “W” sign — I don’t think I’ve seen that since the 2000 campaign. Later in the day, someone tells me, “In a way, that was the last speech of the Bush presidency.” It was a good one, by a good man, yes. I appreciate him anew, though I’ve never actually stopped.