UNIVERSITY PARK - The journey starts simply enough."The presidency is more than an honor. It is more than an office. It is a charge to keep and I will give it my all."Those words written on an entryway wall - first spoken by George W. Bush on Dec. 13, 2000 in Austin - greet visitors as they walk into the museum at the George W. Bush Presidential Center.A brief history of Bush, and his family life, is on display before the key moments of the Bush presidency are detailed in photos, news articles and video clips throughout the 14,000-square-feet of exhibit space in the center that will officially be unveiled during an invitation-only ceremony today.Bush will be joined by President Barack Obama and the three other living ex-presidents - George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter - during an exclusive, 1 1/2 hour dedication ceremony marking the completion of the library, museum and political institute commemorating the 43rd president's eight years in the White House."George did not want this to be a monument to himself," former First Lady Laura Bush told a crowd of media gathered Wednesday for an early look at the nation's 13th official presidential library and museum. "He said that from the very beginning."He thinks if it's based on principles (most relevant to his presidency), ...it can stay relevant."Thousands of dignitaries - including former Bush staffers such as former Commerce Secretary Don Evans, former national security adviser and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, former Ambassador Tom Schieffer of Fort Worth and former Education Secretary Margaret Spellings - are expected to attend today's dedication for the 226,560-square-foot, $250 million center on the edge of the Southern Methodist University campus.Obama arrived in Dallas Thursday night and was greeted by a group of local officials including U.S. Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Fort Worth, after Air Force One touched down at Love Field. He then went on to attend an exclusive fundraiser in Dallas that was geared to raise money for the Democratic National Committee.The main dedication will be from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. A separate event to light Freedom Hall, a space topped with a 67-foot-tall, 50-by-50 foot "lantern" made from Texas Cordova Cream limestone that will glow at night, will be held from 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m.The center will open to the public on May 1.Key exhibitsInside the center - beyond a display of gifts given to the former president that include bowls from Brazil, memorial bracelets from family members of captured and killed service members, even dog bowls and elaborate jewelry from France, Italy and Africa - lies a winding trail of permanent exhibits that document some of the more extraordinary moments of Bush's presidency.It begins with the controversial 2000 presidential election, and the recounts that followed, in the battle between then-Texas Gov. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore. A section entitled "36 days of deadlock" is displayed near campaign paraphernalia and news video footage from the Election Night when no winner was declared. And it notes that Bush became the country's 43rd president after U.S. Supreme Court justices weighed in.Exhibits also point out some of the domestic goals Bush had hoped to focus on, from the No Child Left Behind program to faith-based initiatives.As visitors turn the corner, twisted steel beams recovered from the World Trade Center after the 9/11 attacks in 2001 are a dramatic display, stretching from the floor to ceiling in front of a wall listing names of the many who died on Sept. 11.Sirens can be heard in the background, as old news footage of the attacks is broadcast, and Bush's voice - through a bullhorn now on display - can be heard saying, as he did that day from Ground Zero, "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people - and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"Behind the bullhorn is a quote from Bush on Sept. 14, 2001: "This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way at an hour of our choosing."Laura Bush said this display is among the most poignant for her."I hope people really learn and relearn the history of the first decade of this century," she said. "It's important for people to know about it and remember the people lost Sept. 11."It's a very pivotal moment ... in our history."Other displays touch on issues ranging from the beginning of wars against Afghanistan and Iraq to Hurricane Katrina. Exhibits address issues such as education reform, the spread of human freedom, the financial crisis and efforts to combat the spread of HIV/IDS.Ball gowns from Laura Bush are displayed, as is the custom-designed dress she wore for the White House State Dinner in 2007 in honor of Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip. And there's a display solely on "Living in the White House."There is a replica of the Oval Office that looks as though it was taken straight out of the White House during Bush's tenure from 2001 to 2009, complete with family photos and the presidential seal on the ceiling. That room leads to a Texas Rose Garden, a version of the White House Rose Garden with plants that will flourish in the Texas heat.And there is a Decision Points theater inside where visitors may weigh in on various issues by reviewing scenarios Bush faced in office - from the decision to go into Iraq to the financial crisis - and seeing some of the advice and data he received at the time. Visitors vote on what they would have done, then a video of Bush tells what he actually did."George really wanted people to realize ... how many decisions come to the desk of the president of the United States," Laura Bush said, adding that the theater shows "people what it's like to make decisions quickly."The center doesn't predetermine Bush's legacy as president, said Karen Hughes, a former top advisor to Bush.But it provides information so that visitors can determine for themselves what his legacy should be."He wanted to put out the facts, explain what happened and let people decide," she said.SMU was chosen as the site for the library in 2008. The groundbreaking was in 2010 and the topping out ceremony - when the last piece of the frame on the center was placed at the tallest point of the building - was in 2011.'Joyful occasion'The library and museum were officially turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration during a luncheon Wednesday, as Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation, and David Ferriero, the country's archivist, signed a joint use agreement."It feels a little funny to work on something for six years and then just give it away," Langdale said. "But that's how this works."NARA will run the facility, as the agency does with the country's other 12 presidential libraries and museums.George W. Bush spoke briefly to the crowd, saying he would save the bulk of his remarks for today, because it "really is a day to give thanks."After thanking Langdale and others for their work on the facility, and noting that there's no debt on the center - "which is an unusual phenomenon in the 21st century" - Bush did say one thing about today's celebration."It is going to be a joyful occasion," he said.This red brick and limestone presidential center that houses a library, museum, presidential archives, a public policy institute, the Bush foundation and a park has been in the works since SMU was chosen as the site in 2008.Designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern and landscaped by Michael Van Valkenburgh, the center is located on a 23-acre site at SMU - Laura Bush's alma mater - and in addition to permanent and temporary exhibits, it features the "Cafe 43" restaurant, a museum store, classrooms, research rooms, offices, seminar rooms and an auditorium.Most materials for the complex, ranging from the pecan paneling inside to the bluebonnets outside, came from within 500 miles of Dallas.There are more than 40,000 items from the Bush presidency, more than 200 million emails, 80 terabytes of digital information, nearly 70 million pages of documents and nearly 4 million photos.A key mission of the center will be the privately-funded Bush Policy Institute, which will be "committed to serious, independent research aimed at generating practical solutions to important public policy problems." The institute will focus on education, global health, freedom and economic growth.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.Recent reports show the former president reached his goal of raising at least $500 million - $250 million to pay for the construction of the center and the rest to help fund the institute."I have been bragging about this building for some time," Ferriero said. "But being here, and seeing this gorgeous building, ... it already exceeds expectations."Anna M. Tinsley, (817) 390-7610Twitter: @annatinsley
George W. Bush Presidential Center
Location: Southern Methodist University campus, 2943 SMU Boulevard
Dedication: The invitation-only dedication ceremony will be from 10 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. Thursday. A separate event to light Freedom Hall, a space topped with a lantern-shaped roof that will glow at night, will be held from 8:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Coverage of the event will be on most cable news networks, and there's a live webcast at www.bushcenter.org.
Public openine: The center officially opens to the public on May 1. The hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday; noon-5 p.m. Sunday. For more information: On visiting, contact the visitor services coordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org. For museum questions, call 214-346-1557 or email email@example.com. To write former President George W. Bush or former first lady Laura Bush, send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org or formal correspondence to: Office of George W. Bush, P.O. Box 259000, Dallas, TX 75225-9000