Shock and awe in Dallas as George W Bush’s library mission is accomplished

Blair and Berlusconi present at grand opening to mark the rebuilding of a reputation

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A great presidential love-in played out under a Texas sun as five former Commanders-in-Chief of the United States and five First Ladies gathered to fête George W Bush upon the opening of his library, a building dedicated to rebuilding a reputation left ragged by a storm, a war and a financial meltdown.

Located at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, the $250m (£160m) library will be the 13th built to bolster the legacy of a former American leader. Its public opening is next week on 1 May, the 10th anniversary of one of the less fortunate moments of the two Bush terms: his speech on an aircraft carrier beneath the banner “Mission Accomplished” marking the supposed end of the Iraq War, which would last eight years more.

“There was a time of my life when I wasn’t likely to be found at a library, much less found one,” Mr Bush quipped before a large audience. The front-row seats had been reserved for the most important figures of his years in power, from Dick Cheney, his Vice- President, to the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. Among exhibits inside the building behind them was a newly unveiled painting of Messrs Bush and Blair at work in the Oval Office, although the pair were careful not to be pictured together.

The ideology that divided some of the presidents present on stage was artfully lost amid gales of chumminess and all-American pageantry. “To know the man is to like the man, because he’s comfortable in his own skin,” attempted President Barack Obama. “He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretences. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.”

An opening fanfare from buglers lined up on the roof added an oddly fascist flavour to the proceedings matched only by the architecture of the building itself, which evokes a German airport terminal circa 1936. (The architect is Robert A M Stern, the American formalist.) 

Inside, there is the almost mandatory Oval Office mock-up as well as mementoes from 9/11, the event that came to define the presidency of the younger Bush, including a section of twisted metal from the Twin Towers.

Also in attendance was his father, George H W Bush, who was helped briefly to his feet from his wheelchair after his own few words were met by a standing ovation from the crowd.

Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, the other former US Presidents still living, joined the celebrations. The former called Mr Bush “disarmingly direct” while Mr Carter led tributes to Mr Bush for his commitment to fighting Aids in Africa through the still running Pepfar programme. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll this month found that 35 per cent of Americans viewed him favourably and 44 per cent unfavourably, while a Washington Post/ABC survey put his approval rating at a more healthy 47 per cent.

If anything can be read from the divergent results it is that Mr Bush remains a divisive figure, which poses a challenge for the library and its mission of remaking his place in history.  One critic, Professor Benjamin Hufbauer, of the University of Louisville, described the building to the McClatchy-Tribune as a “huge, glitzy, glamorous museum of spin – a giant campaign commercial in museum form”.

What visitors will not find is any effort by the museum’s creators to play down the significance either of 9/11 or the two most widely criticised landmarks in the Bush terms, the invasion of Iraq and the handling of Hurricane Katrina. An interactive feature inside offers members of the public snippets of information that Mr Bush received during both those moments of crisis and then invites them to decide from themselves how to respond to each of them.