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The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas was dedicated last week, with all four past presidents and the current President in attendance.
President Obama praised Mr. Bush for his resolve after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, his compassion in fighting AIDS in Africa, and his commitment to overhauling the immigration system. He said the presidents’ club is a “support group” of men who have discovered how humbling ultimate power can be.
You cannot be president and not make mistakes, which all the world can see. But neither can a president turn back the clock. He cannot undo his mistakes, but simply try to learn from them.
A president can only hope that history is fair and accurate, for it is not the job of history to be kind and merciful. “He did his best” is not history.
If George W. Bush hopes for more mercy from history than most, it is because he was not a fast learner. But he deserves credit for wanting the whole story of the misbegotten war in Iraq to be told and debated at his library. Historians, not Dick Cheney, will have the final say.
Presidential libraries may begin as tributes, but in the end they serve unvarnished, complicated, honest history. When Gerald Ford was asked whether he wanted pictures of the undignified U.S. retreat from Vietnam in his library, he said: “It is part of our history.”
The presidential library is a unique American institution. Each one is a great resource for scholars. Historian Richard Norton Smith says that taken together the libraries offer “a continuous journey in American history.”
But they are also a testament to history. Politics and partisanship keep going, but history has the last, cold word.