By Emily Goodin - 04/25/13 05:39 PM EDT
Former President George W. Bush choked back tears as his presidential library was dedicated on Thursday.
Speaking at the $250 million complex that bears his name and surrounded by all of the living former presidents and President Obama, Bush choked up as he addressed a crowd of admirers and luminaries.
“I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in our country,” he said, telling the crowd: “God bless.”
The moment that got some of the biggest applause from the crowd was when former President George. H.W. Bush spoke about his son.
The 88-year-old former president was recently hospitalized for bronchitis and spoke from his wheelchair for less than a minute, saying it was “very special” for him and his wife to be there.
The younger Bush took his father’s arm and helped him stand after his remarks, while the crowd cheered. “Good job,” the 43rd president said to the 41st, who replied: “Too long?”
Bush later praised his father in his own remarks, saying his dad “showed me how to be a man. 41, it is awesome you are here today.”
The opening of the center at Southern Methodist University has reignited the debate on a presidency filled with controversial moments. Bush entered office after a disputed 2000 election in which he lost the popular vote and only won the electoral vote after a recount in Florida.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the most traumatic moment in Bush’s presidency, he launched a war with Iraq that continues to affect U.S. policy to this day.
Fights over the Bush tax rates remain an ongoing battle in Washington, and the federal government’s responses to natural disasters are now seen through the prism of Bush’s response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which was criticized as botched.
In a round of interviews, Bush has made it clear he’s not obsessed with his place in history.
“I never thought about my critics,” Bush told the “Today Show” on Thursday morning before the dedication. “Because ultimately, history will judge whether critics are right or wrong. But this is a place to educate people.”
He also said he is at peace with his decisions.
“I told people, when I go home, I want to look in the mirror — I didn’t compromise my principles,” Bush said. “And I know I gave it my best. I gave my best shot for America. And that’s all you can do in life.”
Obama, who has been critical of some of the Bush administration’s policies, praised his predecessor as a “good man.”
He also recalled how Bush’s daughters didn’t want him to run for president, telling him “Dad, you aren’t as cool as you think you are.”
“Mr. President, I can relate,” Obama said.
Former President Clinton joked about former presidents being concerned about their legacy, saying of the library complex: “I told President Obama this was the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history.”
He also chided Bush about his new granddaughter, saying “you beat me to be a grandfather.”
Clinton and Bush have done several charity events together in their post-White House lives, including working on the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, and in 2005, they led a drive to help victims of the tsunami that devastated much of Asia.
Former President Carter also attended the ceremony and offered warm remarks for Bush.
The Bush Center includes a library, a museum and a public policy center.
Laura Bush, who worked on the library’s design and contents, joked to the crowd that no invitation was more exciting than to “come see millions of documents from someone else’s time in office, so thanks for coming.”
Bush joined in on the fun in his remarks, joking about his reputation for avoiding books.
“There was a time in my life I wasn’t likely to be found at a library,” he said.
Besides the former presidents, first lady Michelle Obama and former first ladies Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Rosalynn Carter were also at the dedication.
Other notable guests included former Vice President Dick Cheney, Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Bush Chiefs of Staff Andy Card and Josh Bolten, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), Texas Sens. Ted Cruz (R) and John Cornyn (R), former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Bush advisers Karl Rove and Karen Hughes.
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were among the world leaders present.
The library contains Bush’s presidential papers, while the museum has artifacts like a full-sized Oval Office and a Texas Rose Garden, as well as more than 70 million pages of records, more than 200 million email messages and 4 million photographs, according to the Bush Center. In all there are 43,000 artifacts housed there. Twisted girders from the towers of the World Trade Center and the bullhorn Bush used when he visited Ground Zero commemorate the 9/11 attacks that forever shifted Bush’s presidency.
Bush’s approval rating stood at 31 percent when he left office, according to a CNN poll at the time. But a new CNN/ORC International poll has found people’s views of the 43rd president have improved over time: 42 percent say his presidency was a success, which is up 11 points from when the question was asked in his final days in the Oval Office. And 55 percent said Bush’s presidency was a failure, which is down 13 points since 2009.
Bush has stayed out of the spotlight since he left the White House. He did not attend the 2012 Republican National Convention, nor did he campaign for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. He did release a book, Decision Points, which was not a full memoir of his presidency.
He gives paid speeches, and he and Laura Bush have worked on women’s health issues in Africa.
Bush told NBC News he doesn’t miss being president.
“I had all the fame and power I needed for eight years,” he said.
He has taken up painting and became a grandfather for the first time with granddaughter Mila.
The center opens to the public on May 1.