The George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University was dedicated this morning in Dallas, with President Barack Obama and all living former presidents and First Ladies attending.
A large crowd, including Bush administration alumni, family members of former presidents and numerous foreign dignitaries, gathered outside in mild weather by the $250 million facility, a new anchor for the east side of the SMU campus
“Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead,” a choked-up former President George W. Bush said at the conclusion of his eight-minute-long remarks.
The $250 million facility includes a library and museum, housing official records and artifacts of the 43rd president, as well as the George W. Bush Institute, a public policy center.
Today’s dedication was, to no small degree, a United Methodist event, given that former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura are active United Methodists; that they chose to put the facility at a United Methodist school (Mrs. Bush’s alma mater); and that their pastor, the Rev. Mark Craig of Highland Park UMC (right by the campus) gave the invocation.
“We have gathered today, O God, to give thanks for the life and legacy of President and Mrs. George Bush,” Mr. Craig prayed. “We are thankful for their distinguished leadership to our nation.
Earlier this week, Mr. Craig said in an interview: “The Bushes are very strong church members. Every Sunday I look over to my left, and they’re sitting there … They love their church and they love the Methodist Church.”
SMU President Gerald Turner said the Bush Center will raise the school’s profile and strengthen it academically, through collaborations involving students and professors.
“The most obvious thing is it’ll bring 400,000 to 500,000 people a year here, and many of them wouldn’t have been on campus otherwise,” he said. “But the (academic) programs are what we’re most interested in.”
In his remarks today, Mr. Bush said: “President Gerald Turner runs a fantastic university.” He added that SMU has “a student body that is awesome,” prompting a roar from students gathered for the event.
Former presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter both lauded Mr. Bush for his work on global health, particularly providing drugs to Africans battling HIV/AIDS. Mr. Carter said Mr. Bush, more than anyone, deserved credit for ending civil war in Sudan.
President Obama too praised Mr. Bush for his work in Africa, as well as for backing immigration reform.
“Mr President, for your service, for your courage, for your sense of humor and most of all for your love of country, thank you very much,” President Obama said.
Mr. Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, merely thanked the crowd, but moved many by rising from his wheelchair briefly.
George W. Bush’s presidency was, as he acknowledged today, controversial, including his decision to go to war in Iraq after the 9/11 attacks, and his handling of Hurricane Katrina and the economy, which went into crisis late in his second term.
Though the Bushes made clear they would return to Dallas after his presidency, SMU had to compete to become home to the Bush Center. SMU also had to win approval from the UMC’s South Central Jurisdiction.
Some within the SMU community and the denomination lamented the school’s aggressive bid, particularly since the arrangement required a public policy center that they predicted would reflexively defend Bush’s legacy and promote his philosophy of government.
Critics remain, including the Rev. Bill McElvaney, a retired United Methodist pastor and professor emeritus of SMU’s Perkins School of Theology. He joined in an interfaith service of lamentation earlier this week, one of a number of protest events timed to the Bush Center dedication.
“My view has not shifted about the war in Iraq,” Dr. McElvaney said. “This was an illegal war. It was unnecessary. It was taken on false premises. Our president lived above the law on that.”
But Dr. McElvaney volunteered that the Bush Institute, already in operation, has had some worthy initiatives, including building leadership skills among women in the Middle East – a Laura Bush priority.
“Those are things we can be grateful for, as far as we know,” he said. “We’ll see how this plays out.”
UM Bishop Scott Jones, an SMU board member, said it’s understandable that there would be opposition to the Bush Center within the UMC, given the size and “big tent” character of the denomination.
But he praised the Center, including the Institute, as a strong new resource for SMU.
“The predictions of great harm and polarized political activity raised by critics in 2007 and 2008 have not come true,” Bishop Jones said. “The Institute has conducted itself with academic integrity and been a strong contributor to the university’s mission.”
The Rev. Stephen Rankin, a UM elder and chaplain of SMU, also called the Bush Center an asset for the school and said the Institute can be a place for rigorous, fair-minded policy debate.
“I’m not suggesting some mushy middle-of-the-road default,” he said. “We United Methodists go there almost unthinkingly. I long for honest, pointed discussions with charitable judgments about each other’s motives, rather than the political tit-for-tat that happens too often.”
The center opens to the public May 1, and visitors will encounter a 226,000 sq.-ft. structure whose exterior complements SMU’s Georgian architecture, while including modern touches. The interior walls integrate Texas pecan paneling with Texas limestone.
The solar panel-equipped building earned LEED Platinum certification from the U.S. Green Building Council, and the 15-acre urban park that surrounds it, which Mrs. Bush consulted on closely, features native, drought-tolerant plants landscaped to maximize water conservation.
Freedom Hall provides the “wow” of the Center, with its elevated ceiling and a 360-degree video screen of amazingly high-definition.
The Museum begins with exhibits depicting Bush’s early policy initiatives, such as tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind education program and faith-based initiatives.
But around the corner, the unexpected events dominate, namely the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina and the recession.
“You can see the way our lives changed, and the way the lives of everyone in our country changed,” said Mrs. Bush at a Wednesday media preview.
The Museum includes a twisted beam from the World Trade Towers, flanked by panels offering the names of those killed in the 9/11 attacks. Visitors can use interactive technology to hear the recorded advice Bush was given about whether to go to war in Iraq, and can register their own calls on what should have been done.
“You get to decide how you would handle the crisis, and you’re invited to disagree with him,” said Mark Langdale, president of the Bush Center.
There are many lighter touches, including gowns worn by Mrs. Bush, displays of gifts given to the Bushes by foreign countries and bronze statues of the Bush’s pet dogs. The Museum offers a replica of the Oval Office, decorated as it was in Bush’s time.
There’s even a Rose Garden, albeit it with Texas plants, and a view of the Dallas skyline.
The Bush Library, formally handed over to the National Archives and Records Administration on Wednesday, offers scholars 70 million pages of paper records, 200 million emails and four million digital photographs.
The building also houses the Bush Institute, whose policy areas include economic growth, global health, education reform and human rights. Mrs. Bush noted the Institute’s work on improving treatment for cervical cancer in Africa.
She also praised the Center’s collaboration with SMU.
“It’s fun to be here,” she said Wednesday. “I went to college here. I’m back on my old campus.”
At the dedication, the former presidents and First Ladies – Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Rosalynn Carter – sat together on the raised platform. Many dignitaries sat in front rows of the crowd, including former Vice President Dick Cheney, who served with George W. Bush.
The crowds and strict security measures accompanying the dedication prompted Highland Park UMC to shut down for much of this week.
But Mr. Craig said the church will see visitors and other benefits from the Bush Center. He plans to spend time there in his retirement.
“I wouldn’t mind being a docent,” he said.
The original version of this article can be found here.