President Obama is joined by, from left, former Presidents George W. Bush,… (Charles Dharapak / Associated…)
DALLAS — The five men who have held the title of president gathered to celebrate the dedication of George W. Bush's presidential library at Southern Methodist University on Thursday, a rare reunion that focused on praising his achievements and made only passing reference to the controversies that divided the country during his administration.
Bush, former First Lady Laura Bush, President Obama and all the living ex-presidents — Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush — spoke at a gathering that proved far more collegial than their past political disputes.
"Polls rise and fall, supporters come and go, but in the end leaders are defined by the convictions they hold," Bush told the crowd of supporters, lawmakers and former world leaders.
Although Obama largely campaigned against Bush's moves as president, especially the invasion of Iraq, he had only good things to say Thursday. Iraq went unmentioned.
"To know the man is to like the man because he's comfortable in his own skin. He doesn't put on any pretenses," Obama said of Bush.
Bush, 66, who has largely avoided commenting on the work of his successor, praised Obama in return, thanking him "for your kind words and for leading this country well."
A crowd estimated at 10,000 was drawn to the dedication of the $250-million facility, the 13th presidential library operated by the National Archives. The building houses 43,000 artifacts, 70 million pages of paper records and 200 million emails, the largest digital archive of any presidential library. Admission will be $16 when it opens to the public May 1.
Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice introduced a slew of world leaders in attendance, including NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen and former prime ministers Tony Blair of Britain, Ehud Olmert of Israel and Silvio Berlusconi of Italy.
The gathering also included a who's-who of American political scions: Lyndon Johnson's two daughters, Tricia Nixon Cox, Susan Ford Bales, Michael Reagan and the Bush clan.
They were joined by a host of Republicans: House Speaker John A. Boehner, Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, and Govs. Rick Perry of Texas, Jan Brewer of Arizona and Chris Christie of New Jersey.
Perhaps most watched was George H.W. Bush, who was discharged from the hospital in January after six weeks of treatment for complications from bronchitis.
"Forty-one, it is awesome that you are here today," George W. Bush told his father, the 41st president. Bush, 88, appeared in a wheelchair and spoke briefly, thanking those "who came to honor our son, our oldest son."
"God bless America," he said, then stood momentarily with his son's help, sparking applause.
Despite talk of dueling Bush-Clinton legacies and potential 2016 presidential runs by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton, former President Clinton was warmly received by Thursday's conservative crowd, in part because of his philanthropic work with the senior Bush.
Clinton described George W. Bush as "disarmingly direct" and praised his library for dealing openly with the polarizing decisions he made. (One exhibit allows visitors to decide how they would have handled Hurricane Katrina and the invasion of Iraq, among other crises.)
"Debate and difference is a part of any free society," Clinton said. "By inviting us to make the decisions he made and disagree if we choose, he has honored that tradition."
Both Clinton and Obama seized the opportunity to call for bipartisan support for new immigration legislation, citing Bush's previous efforts.
"I am hopeful that this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and congressmen here today, that we will bring it home," Obama said. "And if we do that, it will be in part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush."
Bush did not weigh in on immigration, instead welcoming allies, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared in a cowboy hat.
"There was a time in my life when I wasn't likely to be found in a library, much less found one," Bush joked.
But he said the library, and his presidency, would stand the test of time.
"When future generations come to study at this library, they're going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions," Bush said, and that he "made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe."
Newly a grandfather, Bush showed no desire to return to public life, saying he hopes his center will press for his causes.
"I'm retired from politics — happily so, I might add — but not from service," he said, wiping away a tear and making a three-fingered "W" sign before leaving the stage.
In the audience, some wondered whether the gesture signaled his support for Jeb Bush's candidacy — a potential third Bush in the White House.
Teresa Jimenez, 70, traveled to the event from Bridgeport, N.J., because she considers Bush "a man of heart." She said she would vote for his brother too.