DALLAS -- To call the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center this week a post-Nov. 2 "Take That, Barack!" moment wouldn't be, well, let's see… certainly not 100 percent accurate. Fifty percent? Sixty? Something in that range maybe.
Which isn't a reference to the 43rd president's intentions in summoning friends and supporters from far and near to mark the breaking of ground on the 23-acre project scheduled to open in the spring of 2013 on the eastern side of Southern Methodist University's campus.
The center's namesake -- whose best-selling memoir bears the title "Decision Points" -- noted the pile of decisions that lie on the 44th president's desk. "He deserves to make them," said George W. Bush, "without criticism from me."
But then there was Dick Cheney. The former vice president, wielding a cane and looking gaunter and older than when he turned his official house over to Joe Biden, received a fusillade of cheers. The Bush center, said Cheney, "may be the only [nudge, nudge] shovel-ready project in America." More cheers. Hearty applause.
Then the sly tribute to his former boss -- a man "unimpressed with himself." Noted for his "refusal to put on airs." "No affectation about him at all." A "decent, good-hearted, stand-up guy." In contrast with…? Dick Cheney wasn't telling. He said he knew this much: The boss's belief that history would be his best judge was taking on reality. "The history is beginning to come around." He proudly recalled the bullhorn incident -- Bush's most spontaneous and best appreciated moment as national leader, when he got the world's attention at Ground Zero with his call to rally round freedom.
The boss -- who records in his memoir that Cheney offered to stand down as vice president in 2004 -- responded with a rhetorical bear hug -- "a great vice president of the United States, and I'm proud to call him friend."
Condi Rice -- in red dress that matched the former First Lady's own -- likewise set off whooshes of cheers and applause. She's chairman of the board of the George W. Bush Institute -- a discrete department of the larger Bush Center. Its project is to come up with and advance democratic and market-based ideas for coping with an array of problems around the world, including, in the Center's own narrative, "human freedom, education reform, global health, and economic growth."
The Bush Center, it has to be noted, isn't just a library, though it will house 80 terabytes of digital information and 43,000 administration artifacts. The Bush Institute is meant as an idea factory -- which could be good news or bad news, depending on one's perception of the ideas hatched at the White House from 2001-09. Among these was, yes, greater centralization of education funding and academic standard-setting. Why does "No Child Left Behind" come so suddenly to mind?
Less exposure to blame and, certainly, frustration derives from the Institute's emphasis on freedom. The Institute, its namesake related, "believes you can spend your money better than the United States government can spend it." He got no arguments from the 3,000 spectators gathered beneath a mega tent under the tight security conditions sure to obtain at the Bush Center once it gets under way. No. 43 and the former First Lady live only a few miles to the north. They appear to plan a hands-on relationship with the center, which is headed by longtime conservative journalist James Glassman.
Called on by her husband to impart her own vision for the Institute, Laura Bush discoursed on the "women's initiative" she wants to launch -- "fostering economic opportunity and promoting freedom" for women, with emphases on literacy and health.
What distinguishes the Bushes' present enterprises from those they oversaw until two years ago? Chiefly a lack of taxpayer money to fund them, and no need for political trimming and compromise in moving ahead. Is there a family resemblance here to the Clinton Global Initiative, founded by the 42nd president in 2005? Quite a significant resemblance, actually: one major difference being the Bushes' deployment of freedom both as tool and objective and the CGI's seeming focus on good works (good as they might be) for their own sake.
Bush's efforts to spread democracy were much mocked during his presidency, sometimes by conservatives: the more so when the war in Iraq started to go south and imprecations upon American "imperialism" began breaking out across the political spectrum.
Another side of 43's commitment to freedom showed up in the flesh at the groundbreaking ceremony in Dallas -- former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. For all the attempts of the left in the United States to blackguard Uribe, foe of his country's leftwing guerrillas, and perforce to block ratification of the U. S.-Colombian free trade agreement, Bush stuck by his South American amigo. Not the least interest to date has President Obama shown in getting the treaty ratified.
For all that Bush 43 left office with excoriations ringing in both ears, the right one and the left, the grass his administration planted and tended looks significantly greener when viewed from the perspective of November 2010 -- ObamaCare, financial regulation, oil-drilling moratoriums, bailouts, sweet talk with foreign jerks, gag, urp.
A friendly audience in Dallas could have been expected, on such an occasion as the ground-breaking, to applaud in friendly fashion. The Republican/conservative wave on Nov. 2 created just the right momentum to whoop it up, shout a little, celebrate, paint the town red. And so, on a mild, sunny November morning in Dallas, it came to pass.
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