A presidential library for all of us


We needed these moments of introspection, these reflections on national purpose, these symbols of national concord. Many of them occurred in Boston, site of terrorism in 2013. One of them occurred in Dallas, site of tragedy in 1963.

The images of what happened in Boston already have been seared into the national pysche. The image of what happened in Dallas last week is fresher.

While ceremonial rather than spontaneous, it was a powerful statement about the noblest American values. Duty. Service. Reconciliation. Unity.

It was there, in Dallas, that five presidents — all the living chief executives — gathered to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. There is a liturgy to moments such as this, carefully intertwined skeins of expressions and omissions, artfully crafted speeches about the burden of office, exhortations of good will, eloquent things said, and difficult things unsaid.

“I like President Bush,” Bill Clinton said that morning. The remark carried the weight of the generous and the genuine.

That was all there, on the campus of Southern Methodist University, on a shiny afternoon when President Obama, who for years after his inauguration still pilloried the younger Mr. Bush, stood in presidential solidarity with his foil.

When the man being honored warmly greeted Mr. Clinton, his remarks about how his predecessor had dishonored the White House were long forgotten.

When Mr. Clinton, who ran a tough race against the older Mr. Bush, stood beside the wheelchair carrying his 1992 rival, his body language displayed devotion, perhaps even love. And when Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who cringe every time their names are in the same sentence with Jimmy Carter, nonetheless welcomed the 39th president as one of their own.

There, in one stunning Texas tableau, stood most of American history since 1977.

Missing, of course, was Ronald Reagan, who had a gift for conciliation. Despite his age in the White House, he also had a sharper vision than any of those in attendance.

What we saw there too was a portrait of a land locked in economic crisis, wracked with social divisions, jolted by terrorism at a precious regional ritual, and saddened by the knowledge that its most precious conviction — social mobility and the sturdy belief that children will surpass their parents — is in grave danger of becoming a myth.

These five men, makers of history but responders to history as well, represent so much of our national character.

Mr. Obama never will cease being a national symbol, even if his domestic initiatives are forgotten, if his health-care initiative fails, and if his legacy, like those of presidents between 1865 and 1893, are lost in a mist of memory.

He still will be remembered as a pathfinder — and a symbol of what a nation that yearns to leave its greatest wrong behind can do when the time comes, in the autumn every four years, to look forward and exercise its greatest right.

The younger Mr. Bush remains a historical work in progress. Some of the remarks made awkward swerves around the obstacles of Iraq, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the economy.

A moment here for the elder Mr. Bush, who spoke movingly of “our son.” No longer the hyper-frenetic president but still a master of building coalitions, he is the consensus elder statesman, the onetime symbol of privilege who is now an enduring and beloved symbol of the “kinder, gentler” values he spoke of in his 1988 campaign.

And finally, Mr. Carter. Hardly anyone contests that his was a fraught presidency, pockmarked by inflation, high interest rates, hostages in Iran, and a national malaise. But do not let it be forgotten that Mr. Carter was an idealist. He cleansed American politics of the rot of despair after Watergate.

The events that marked the opening of the first presidential library of the century began with the Pledge of Allegiance, delivered by a female first lieutenant who is an Army veteran of Iraq. At the library site are twisted girders from the Sept. 11 attacks.

There were speeches, flags, anthems, and patriot dreams, undimmed by human tears. They were a reminder of this: Presidential libraries, like presidents, are not about individuals. They are about us all.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com