(MCT) 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 to the National Multi Housing Council, a group of apartment companies. 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 non-partisan World Affairs Council of Dallas/Fort Worth.
Bush, 60, spoke mostly about improving American education and immigration, the subject of his new book, “Immigration Wars: Forging an American Solution.” He mentioned his father George H.W. Bush, noting that his health had improved and he was expected at Thursday’s library celebration, and also his brother, who has kept a low profile recently.
“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 Bush plan to run? He demurred.
“I’m focused on the land commissioner race in 2014,” he said, a contest which 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 Bush is “more mainstream and has less baggage than anyone else I know of.”
But Johnson said he grew to respect Hillary Clinton, too, during her time as secretary of state, and that if Bush chooses to run against her, he’ll face the specter of his brother’s polarizing legacy.
Mindy Stenger said she hopes Bush gets 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 presidents.
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, on Wednesday noted the 9/11 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-9/11: 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 adviser Karen Hughes said Wednesday was so life-like “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 forces visitors to handle four crises: the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the troop surge, Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis.
Bush’s national security adviser, 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 while the library likely won’t boost Bush’s popularity among detractors, “It will help people see the legacy through a more objective lens.”
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