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RARE COMMON BOND ON FULL DISPLAY

Five U.S. presidents and first ladies gather to praise George W. Bush at the dedication of his library in Dallas.

Los Angeles Times

DALLAS - The five living men who have held the title of president gathered to celebrate the dedication of George W. Bush's presidential library at Southern Methodist University on Thursday, a rare reunion that focused on praising his achievements and made only passing reference to the controversies that divided the country during his administration.

Bush, former first lady Laura Bush, President Barack Obama and all the living ex-presidents - Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, and Bush's father, George H.W. Bush - spoke at the gathering that proved far more collegial than their political disputes.

"Polls rise and fall, supporters come and go, but in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold," Bush told the crowd of supporters, lawmakers and former world leaders.

Although Obama largely campaigned against Bush's moves as president, especially the invasion of Iraq, he had only good things to say Thursday. Iraq went unmentioned.

"To know the man is to like the man because he's comfortable in his own skin. He doesn't put on any pretenses," Obama said of Bush.

Bush, 66, who has largely avoided commenting on the work of his successor, praised Obama in return, thanking him "for your kind words and for leading this country well."

A crowd estimated at 10,000 was drawn to the dedication of the $250 million facility, the 13th presidential library operated by the National Archives. The building houses 43,000 artifacts, 70 million pages of paper records and 200 million emails, the largest digital archive of any presidential library. Admission will be $16 when it opens to the public May 1.

Perhaps most watched in the crowd was George H.W. Bush, 88, who was discharged from the hospital in January after six weeks of treatment for complications from bronchitis.

"Forty-one, it is awesome that you are here today," George W. Bush told his father, the 41st president. Bush appeared in a wheelchair and spoke briefly, thanking those "who came to honor our oldest son."

"God bless America," he said, then stood momentarily with his son's help, sparking applause.

Despite talk of dueling Bush-Clinton legacies and potential 2016 presidential runs by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Bill Clinton was warmly received by Thursday's conservative crowd, in part because of his philanthropic work with the senior Bush.

Clinton described George W. Bush as "disarmingly direct" and praised his library for dealing openly with the polarizing decisions he made. (One exhibit allows visitors to decide how they would have handled Hurricane Katrina and the invasion of Iraq, among other crises.)

"Debate and difference is a part of any free society," Clinton said. "By inviting us to make the decisions he made and disagree if we choose, he has honored that tradition."

Both Clinton and Obama seized the opportunity to call for bipartisan support for new immigration legislation, citing Bush's previous efforts.

"I am hopeful that this year, with the help of Speaker Boehner and some of the senators and congressmen here today, that we will bring it home," Obama said. "And if we do that, it will be in part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush."

Bush did not weigh in on immigration, instead welcoming former allies, including Vice President Dick Cheney, who appeared in a cowboy hat.

"There was a time in my life when I wasn't likely to be found in a library, much less found one," Bush joked.

But he said the library, and his presidency, would stand the test of time.

"When future generations come to study at this library, they're going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions," Bush said, and that he "made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe."

Newly a grandfather, Bush showed no desire to return to public life, saying he hopes his center will press for his causes.

"I'm retired from politics - happily so, I might add - but not from service," he said, wiping away a tear and making a three-fingered "W" sign before leaving the stage.

In the audience, some wondered if the gesture signaled his support for Jeb Bush's candidacy - a potential third Bush in the White House.

Teresa Jimenez, 70, traveled to the event from Bridgeport, N.J., because she considers Bush "a man of heart." She said she would vote for his brother, too.

"He really loves this country, him and his family, and he does not brag about what he has done," said Jimenez, an obstetrician who emigrated from Cuba.

Cruz, who cut his teeth campaigning for Bush in 2000, said he learned from the president's example.

"His greatest strength was he did what he believed was right regardless of criticism and polls," Cruz said.

Many in Thursday's audience enjoyed seeing the camaraderie among presidents.

"There was such a positive spirit among the presidents, the friendships that have lasted through the years," said Diane West, a Dallas Republican who even found herself warming to Clinton, whose comments about immigration, she said, were timely.

"They made me laugh - I have tears in my eyes," said retired Houston Rockets center Dikembe Mutombo, who attended with former Dallas Maverick and Los Angeles Laker D.J. Mbenga. "It gives us a different impression. Sometimes we think of our former presidents in their own little rooms, not listening to each other."

Mutombo said he has teamed with all the presidents on humanitarian work in Africa, but it was George W. Bush who mentioned him during his 2007 State of the Union address. Mutombo, originally from Congo, said he appreciated Bush's efforts to fight AIDS in Africa and help broker peace in Sudan.

Stephen Boyd, 22, an SMU junior, said he was bothered by Obama's mention of immigration, saying he should have "stuck with accolades." Boyd was in fourth grade on Sept. 11, 2001, and came of age during the George W. Bush administration.

"He represents Texas to me, but as a nation, I think he represents real leadership," said the young Republican. "He was a steadfast leader: Once he decided something, he stuck to it. He's very much a statesman - I think he doesn't even know it now. You can see it in his improved ratings."

And how will history judge the 43rd president?

"That depends on who's writing it," Boyd said.

"When future generations come to study at this library,they're going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions.''

President George W. Bush, during Thursday's dedication

"Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right, polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. But in the end leaders are defined by the convictions that they hold."

George W. Bush, 43rd president

"I told President Obama this was the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history."

Bill Clinton, 42nd president

"It's very special for Barbara and me.''

George H.W. Bush, 41st president

"I'm filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you've made to the most needy people on earth."

Jimmy Carter, 39th president

"He takes his job seriously but he doesn't take himself too seriously. He is a good man.''

Barack Obama, 44th president

"Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right, polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. But in the end leaders are defined by the convictions that they hold."

George W. Bush, 43rd president

"I told President Obama this was the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history."

Bill Clinton, 42nd president

"It's very special for Barbara and me.''

George H.W. Bush, 41st president

"I'm filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you've made to the most needy people on earth."

Jimmy Carter, 39th president

"He takes his job seriously but he doesn't take himself too seriously. He is a good man.''

Barack Obama, 44th president

About the Bush library

Features: The red brick and limestone building located on a 23-acre site at SMU features signature architecture such as Freedom Hall, which features a 360-degres high-definition video wall, and a 67-foot tower has a lantern that glows at night. Located at the alma mater of Laura Bush, the center was designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern and landscaped by Michael Van Valkenburgh.

What's inside: A Decisions Point Theater and a life-size "Oval Office" that looks as though it was taken straight out of the White House during Bush's tenure from 2001 to 2009.

The center will open to the public on May 1.

Third in Texas: This is the 13th presidential library operated by the National Archives and Records Administration and the third in Texas. The other two are the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library and Museum in Austin and the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station.

In the crowd

Among those seen in the crowd or expected to attend Thursday: former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida; former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; such White House aides as Andrew H. Card Jr., Joshua B. Bolten, Karen Hughes, Dan Bartlett, Joe Hagin, Joel Kaplan, Mary Matalin, Harriet Miers and Anita McBride; and political advisers like Ken Mehlman and Mark McKinnon. Current and former foreign leaders like Tony Blair of Britain, Ehud Olmert of Israel, Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and John Howard of Australia were also present, as were current and former Republican lawmakers like Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, and Bill Frist of Tennessee, the former Senate majority leader.

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