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The nation's newest presidential library was dedicated today in Dallas, Texas. The George W. Bush Center is full of interactive exhibits and documents from the turbulent first decade of this century. At the ceremony, five U.S. presidents gathered to pay tribute to President Bush. NPR's Don Gonyea was there and sent this report.
DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Bright sunshine bathed the estimated 10,000 people who sat in white folding chairs outside the brand new George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University. The crowd included foreign leaders from President Bush's time. There were speeches from Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush - he was in a wheelchair and uttered just a few sentences - and Bill Clinton, who teased that a library is part of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history. President Obama recalled an iconic moment in the Bush presidency.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: As we walk through this library, obviously we're reminded of the incredible strength and resolve that came through that bullhorn as he stood amid the rubble and the ruins of ground zero, promising to deliver justice to those who had sought to destroy our way of life.
GONYEA: President Bush teared up occasionally as the ceremony played out. Finally, it was his turn.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: It's the honor of a lifetime to lead a country as brave and as noble as the United States. Whatever challenges come before us, I will always believe our nation's best days lie ahead. God bless.
GONYEA: The museum is made of brick and limestone. It is administered by the National Archives. It holds millions of pages of digital and paper records, some 200 million emails and tens of thousands of artifacts. It's a treasure trove for academics and historians.
Walk through the courtyard and there are side-by-side, larger-than-life statues of both Presidents Bush. First stop inside for visitors is the high-ceilinged entryway called Freedom Hall. The museum exhibits begin with the 2000 presidential campaign.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN)
GONYEA: In the same room, another video looks at the controversial election result and recount in Florida.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO CLIPS)
GONYEA: In the next room, the early days of the Bush presidency. The focus is on domestic issues: tax cuts, the faith-based initiative, No Child Left Behind. There's even a display of baseballs from White House T-ball games. But turn the corner and the tone changes abruptly. Visitors are met by two mangled towering steel beams from the World Trade Center.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED PRESS CONFERENCE)
GONYEA: The bullhorn Bush used at ground zero is in a glass case to the left. From here, the museum is about a wartime presidency. There are interactive maps of Afghanistan and Iraq. Controversies over Bush policies are not avoided. In video interviews, he offers no regrets for the war and other policies. Mark Langdale is the president of the Bush Center.
MARK LANGDALE: He wanted us to just lay out the facts and let the people decide, and you're invited to disagree with them if you like.
GONYEA: President Bush once famously referred to himself as the decider. His museum features something called Decision Points Theater.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: George W. Bush made many tough decisions as president. Now, you'll get a flavor for what that's like.
GONYEA: Visitors use touch screens to navigate through a crisis. One looks at Hurricane Katrina, another deals with Saddam Hussein. Choose from an array of advisers with conflicting advice. Here's an actor portraying a CIA analyst.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: Intelligence indicates that Saddam Hussein has weapons of mass destruction.
GONYEA: Here's another adviser from the U.N.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And continued pressure from the U.N. will eventually force him to comply with international demands.
GONYEA: After four minutes of this, you decide what you would have done. The takeaway is that no matter your opinion, the choices for the president are rarely easy. It's a message the new Bush library wants you to appreciate. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.