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Bush library events cast sights toward 2016

Festivities preceding the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library feature two prospective presidential candidates: Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush.

April 24, 2013|By Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Los Angeles Times
  • George W. Bush poses for a photo with Robert Stern, architect of the former president's library, which is to be dedicated Thursday on the campus of Southern Methodist University.
George W. Bush poses for a photo with Robert Stern, architect of the former… (G.J. McCarthy / Dallas Morning…)

DALLAS — A day of festivities leading up to Thursday's dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library cast attention back to his tumultuous presidency and ahead — perhaps — to the next presidential contest.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was hired to speak in Dallas to the National Multi Housing Council, a group of apartment firms. The Wednesday dinner was closed, and officials did not disclose how much Clinton was paid.

Earlier, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke before wealthy Republican donors — and also students, teachers and office workers — at an event sponsored by the nonpartisan World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth.

Bush, 60, spoke mostly about education and immigration, the subject of his new book, "Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution." He mentioned his father, former President George H.W. Bush, noting that his health had improved and he was expected at Thursday's library celebration.

He also spoke in defense of his brother, who has kept a low profile since leaving office in 2009.

"I think my brother deserves a little credit for not sitting on the sidelines and carping about his successor," Bush said.

Audience members asked Bush about his experience running Florida's schools, about foreign policy and, most of all, about his presidential prospects in 2016.

"Hopefully I'll meet you in Washington as the next president of the United States," said Dallas lawyer Sante Chary, sparking a round of applause.

One of the organizers asked: Does he plan to run? He demurred.

"I'm focused on the land commissioner race in 2014," he said, a contest that features his son, 37-year-old George P. Bush, who is making his first bid for public office.

The audience was charmed.

"He'd be very well-qualified to be president — No. 1, having the father he had," said Larry Johnson, a conservative unaffiliated with a party, saying that Jeb Bush is "more mainstream and has less baggage than anyone else I know of."

But Johnson said he grew to respect Clinton too during her time as secretary of State, and that if Bush chooses to run — possibly against her — he'll face the specter of his brother's polarizing legacy.

Mindy Stenger said she hoped Bush would get a chance to establish himself apart from his brother.

"He is his own man and he can't be responsible for what his brother did," said Stenger, a Republican supporter.

George W. Bush's legacy will be the focus of Thursday's library dedication, which will feature all of the nation's living former presidents and the incumbent.

The George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes the library, museum and institute, cost $250 million, paid for out of $500 million raised by the George W. Bush Foundation. The library and its exhibits do not sidestep the events of the two Bush terms, from the Supreme Court fight that won him the presidency, to acts of terrorism and war, and the financial crisis that dominated his final months in office.

Former First Lady Laura Bush, who was involved in designing the library at her alma mater, Southern Methodist University in Dallas, on Wednesday noted the Sept. 11 display, which includes a twisted steel beam from tower 2 of the World Trade Center.

"I think people will be very moved by the 9/11 exhibit, and I think that's important because we still live with the effect of 9/11, both our security issues that we have and of course the loss that we still live with," she said while answering questions in a mock White House Rose Garden, into which designers substituted native Texas plants.

She said the exhibit reminded her of "meeting the families and going to that memorial service in that field in Shanksville," the Pennsylvania town where a plane commandeered by hijackers had crashed. "I remember the families that came to the White House more than once. I think some will be at the opening of the library."

She noted that the museum opens with photos of the couple's Texas ranch and examples of the Bush agenda pre-Sept. 11: tax cuts, faith-based initiatives, the No Child Left Behind educational measure, their first state dinner with Mexico: "And then you turn the corner and see the big beam from the World Trade Center."

"Even in the way we tried to lay out the museum, you can see the way our lives changed and the lives of everyone in this country changed after Sept. 11," Bush said.

She said she particularly enjoyed the museum's replica of her husband's Oval Office, which longtime Bush advisor Karen Hughes said Wednesday was so lifelike, "I felt like I was going to work."

Museum designers re-created the White House situation room as the Decision Points Theater, an interactive exhibit that requires visitors to handle four crises: the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the "surge" of U.S. troops there, Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis.

Bush's national security advisor, Stephen Hadley, said the former president enjoyed the museum and stands behind his decisions.

"He based his decisions on principles; he tried to make the best decisions he could, and I think he is at peace with that," Hadley said at the library Wednesday.

Joshua Bolten, Bush's chief of staff, praised designers who "made the wise decision to take the difficulties of the Bush administration and face them head on." There's even a video montage of Bush and Al Gore detailing the tumultuous 2000 election recount — and a container of chads, part of the disputed Florida ballots.

"So many difficult things happened during that presidency," Bolten said, and though the library probably won't boost Bush's popularity among detractors, "it will help people see the legacy through a more objective lens."

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