It’s presidents’ day: Four former commanders in chief and the current occupant of the White House gathered at Southern Methodist University to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. Seated atop the library steps on a bright, sunny day, each president was scheduled to speak for five minutes. For what has become something of an American tradition, it was surprisingly emotional. Eight things that stood out:
- Barbara Bush and President Obama are new bffs. The wife of 41/mother of 43 was seated next to President Obama and they chatted and laughed often during musical interludes and introductions. She made news earlier in the day when she was asked on NBC’s Today Show whether Jeb should run in 2016. Her response: He’s the “best qualified,” but “we’ve had enough Bushes.”
- President Clinton got the biggest laugh. He says he has grown so close to Barbara and George H.W. Bush that he’s like the black sheep of the family, another son. Just as everyone is wondering whether our boy Bill will exceed his allotted time, as he is wont to do, he tells the crowd that “my mother Barbara” told him not to talk too long today.
- President Carter managed to praise George W. while patting himself on the back. Still, he put the spotlight on Bush’s not often acknowledged role in brokering an elusive peace in Sudan in 2005. (Carter, of course, said he’s the one who pestered him to do it.)
- The highlight of the ceremony: the short remarks by George H.W. Bush, who spent a couple of months in the hospital late last year and is using a wheelchair. But he smiled often, and when he spotted a friend in the audience, gave them a cheery little wave. In a somewhat shaky voice, the 88-year-old thanks everyone for coming. End of speech. The television camera captures what happens next. The elder Bush turns to his son and quips, “Too long?” George W. laughs. But for the audience, it wasn’t long enough. They want to draw out his time in the sun and give him an extended ovation and cheers — 41 rises to stand, with the help of his wife and son. Was there a dry eye in the house?
- Obama uses his five minutes to push for immigration reform: “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 — for our families, and our economy, and our security, and for this incredible country that we love. And if we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush.”
- The only shout-out to Cheney came in 43’s own speech.
- Bush plugs the Today show, sort of. “If you don’t have anything to do in the morning,” you should watch, he says. His daughter, Jenna, is a correspondent for the show. The TV camera spots the new mother in the audience. It’s clear she’s been crying for much of the ceremony; her face is so awash in tears, she doesn’t bother with tissues.
- George W. gets choked up as he closes with: “I dedicate this library with unshakable faith in the future of our country.” His eyes well up and he wipes away a tear.
– M.S. Scully