UNIVERSITY PARK — President Barack Obama and former presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton united Thursday morning to share memories and honor former President George W. Bush during the dedication ceremony for the George W. Bush Presidential Center located within the Southern Methodist University campus.
Touching on his work on immigration reform, efforts to secure peace in North and South Sudan and his role after the 9/11 attacks, each president shared their thoughts on Bush's service from 2001 to 2009. It was an emotional and optimistic moment for the 43rd president.
"I dedicate this library with unshakable faith in the future of our country," Bush said. And with a tremble in his voice, added: "Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation's best days lie ahead."
The Bush library contains more than 70 million pages of paper records, four million digital photos and about 43,000 artifacts. Bush's library features the largest digital holdings of any of the 13 presidential libraries under the auspices of the National Archives and Records Administration, officials said.
Situated in a 15-acre urban park at Southern Methodist University, the center includes 226,000 square feet of indoor space.
Dr. Condoleezza Rice was the first to welcome the invitation-only crowd on Thursday morning. She was followed by former first lady Laura Bush, who said the library serves not only as a site to honor her husband, but also a place to reflect on the world during his time as the first president as the 21st century.
"Here we remember the heartbreak and heroism of September 11 and the bravery of those who answered the call to defend our country," she said.
Laura Bush led the design committee, officials said, with a keen eye toward ensuring that her family's Texas roots were conspicuously reflected. Architects used local materials, including Texas Cordova cream limestone and trees from the central part of the state, in its construction.
Taking the podium after Laura Bush, former President Jimmy Carter, 88, spoke about Bush's work for a resolution of the tumultuous war between North and South Sudan, which ended with a peace treaty.
"George. W. Bush is responsible for that," he said.
President Carter also discussed Bush's work on AIDS awareness in Africa.
"So, Mr. President, let me say that I'm thrilled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contribution you've made to the most neediest people on Earth. Thank you very much."
Eighty-eight-year-old President George H.W. Bush, who was released from a Houston hospital in January after spending seven weeks in care for treatment from bronchitis, was met with loud applause and an ovation as he expressed his pleasure in honoring his son during a short speech.
"Too long?" he asked his son with a smile as he turned to shake his hand.
Clinton followed with thoughts on Bush's ability to listen and welcome differences, something highlighted in the exhibit at the center where visitors can follow Bush's presidency and make their own choices on key events.
"We are here to celebrate a country we all love, a service we all rendered," he said. "And debate and difference is an important part of every free society. By asking us to join him in the decisions he made and inviting us to make different ones if we choose he has honored that deepest American tradition."
President Barack Obama was the last to speak before Bush. Obama spoke on the "special day" in which all the living presidents came together, the last time being just before Obama took office.
"We've been called the "world's most exclusive club ... but the truth is our club is more like a support group," he said.
The president also shared his gratitude towards Bush for placing a note in his desk that he discovered during the first day of his presidency.
"For he knew that I would come to learn what he learned - that being president, above all, is a humbling job," he said. "There are moments where you make mistakes; there are times where you wish you could turn back the clock. And what I know is true about President Bush, and what I hope my successor will say about me, is that we love this country and we do our best."
He went on to touch on Bush's childhood and the man he became.
"To know the man is to like the man because he is comfortable in his own skin," he said."He knows who he is; he doesn't put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn't take himself too serious. He is a good man."
And it was on an optimistic note Bush started his speech.
"Oh happy day!" he said. "Today marks a major milestone in a journey that started 20 years ago when I announced my campaign for governor of Texas."
He thanked the other presidents and their wives, and expressed his gratitude for all those who stood by his side and helped him develop and build the center.
For Bush, 66, the ceremony also marked his unofficial return to the public eye, four years after the end of his deeply polarizing presidency.
There's at least some evidence that Americans are warming to Bush, four years after he returned to his ranch in Crawford, even if they still question his judgment on Iraq and other issues. While Bush left office with an approval rating of 33 percent, that figure has climbed to 47 percent — about equal to Obama's own approval rating, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll released ahead of the library opening.
Three protesters were arrested near the event after attempting to cross over into an area in which authorities were allowing no entries. While the protesters were authorized to gather on the east side of Central Expressway across from the center, the three arrested allegedly attempted to cross the bridge towards the Bush Center.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center is open to the public starting May 1.
WFAA.com's Marjorie Owens contributed to this report.