(CBS News) -- Flanked by President Obama and the three other living United States presidents, former President George W. Bush became emotional on Thursday at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.
“I dedicate this library with unshakeable faith in the future of our country,” Mr. Bush said with tears in eyes, standing in front of the 226,565-square-foot complex at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
Mr. Bush called it the “honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States” and said that no matter what challenges the nation faces, “I’ll always believe our nation’s best days lie ahead.”
It’s rare for all of the living U.S. presidents to gather in one place; the last meeting of Mr. Obama, Mr. Bush, former President Clinton, former President George H.W. Bush and former President Carter took place in the White House in 2009, just ahead of Mr. Obama’s inauguration.
Mr. Obama said at the library dedication that the living presidents have been called “the world’s most exclusive club,” but he said, “Our club’s more like a support group... No matter how much you think you’re ready... it’s impossible to truly understand the nature of the job until it’s yours.”
While Mr. Bush’s presidency is largely remembered for its controversial moves, such as starting the war in Iraq and its response to Hurricane Katrina, Thursday’s dedication focused on the positive aspects of his tenure. Mr. Obama, Mr. Clinton and Mr. Carter all, for instance, praised his work in Africa.
“On January 2005 there was a peace treaty between North and South Sudan that ended a war,” Mr. Carter said. “George W. Bush is responsible for that.”
Mr. Obama also commended Mr. Bush for reaching across the aisle to revive the debate over immigration reform.
“While immigration reform has taken a little longer than any of us expected, I am hopeful this year... we bring it home for our families and our economy,” Mr. Obama said. “If we do that, it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush.”
The current and former presidents also praised Mr. Bush’s character. Mr. Obama said he showed “incredible strength and resolve” in the days after September 11, 2001, “promising justice to those who sought to destroy our way of life.”
Mr. Clinton, meanwhile, joked about his close personal relationship with the Bush family, noting that people have jokingly called him the “black sheep son” of former President George H.W. Bush. Mr. Clinton said of George W. Bush, “I like it when we have disagreements. He’s disarmingly direct.”
He also joked about Mr. Bush’s new hobby, painting, referencing the paintings that made it onto the Internet after members of the Bush family had their email accounts hacked. Mr. Clinton joked that he considered asking Mr. Bush to paint his portrait—until he saw the self-portraits Mr. Bush painted of himself in the shower. “Those bathroom sketches were wonderful, but at my age, I think I should keep my suit,” he said.
Mr. Clinton also joked that the new presidential library is “the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
The new complex does give Mr. Bush a chance to his side of the story of his tumultous eight years in office.
In one exhibit, visitors “can step into a gaming experience” to consider four big decisions Mr. Bush himself faced in office—the Iraq invasion, the troop surge, the response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis. The interactive exhibit gives the visitor advice from advisers, and after four minutes, Mr. Bush explains in a video his own decision-making process.
While the museum touches on controversial aspects of Mr. Bush’s eight years in office, it focuses more on the initiatives that helped define Mr. Bush as a “compassionate conservative,” such as No Child Left Behind and combating AIDS in Africa.
Mr. Bush said today that ultimately, “leaders are defined by the convictions they hold.”
“My deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must drive to expand the reach of freedom,” he continued. “I believe that freedom is a gift from God and the hope of every human heart.”
When future generations visit his museum and library, Mr. Bush said, “They’re going to find out we stayed true to our convictions.”