UNIVERSITY PARK -- Saying "our best days lie ahead," former President George W. Bush formally dedicated his presidential complex on Southern Methodist University grounds Thursday.Praised by former presidents for his dedication to country and for guiding the country through one of its darkest points in history, Bush said he still has much he wants to do - help children, assist countries in fighting poverty and disease, empower women nationwide and steadfastly continue to support service men and women."I dedicate this library with an unshakable faith in the future of our country," he said. More than 10,000 people crowded onto the SMU campus for the formal dedication ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, a $250 million, three-story complex featuring a library, museum and institute honoring the country's 43rd president.It was a rare gathering of top world leaders - the "exclusive" presidential club of President Barack Obama and four ex-presidents, George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton - who witnessed the dedication of the center along with dignitaries from around the world, including First Lady Michelle Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, various world leaders and members of the Bush family such as former First Lady Barbara Bush, former First Lady Barbara Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush."This is a Texas-sized party," Obama said. "And that's worthy of what we're here to do today: honor the life and legacy of the 43rd President of the United States, George W. Bush."Obama has had harsh words for Bush for years, but had nothing but plaudits Thursday. "To know the man is to like the man," Obama said of the former president."No one can be completely ready for this office," Obama added. "But America needs leaders who are willing to face the storm head on, even as they pray for God's strength and wisdom so that they can do what they believe is right. And that's what the leaders with whom I share this stage have all done. That's what President George W. Bush chose to do. That's why I'm honored to be part of today's celebration."Mr. President, for your service, for your courage, for your sense of humor, and, most of all, for your love of country, thank you very much," he said. "From all the citizens of the United States of America, God bless you."The 1 1/2-hour outdoor ceremony on the library grounds drew national attention to SMU, as well as heavy security, especially coming a week after the explosions at the Boston Marathon that killed three and injured more than 100. Police officers, fire fighters, Secret Service agents - and Secret Service riflemen positioned on the center's rooftop - were present throughout the area, protecting dignitaries and helping control the crowd.Nearby, protesters continued their week-long effort to draw attention to what they call war crimes committed by the Bush administration, marching and carrying signs. Reports show there were a handful of arrests.Key momentA much anticipated moment in the ceremony came when all five presidents entered, standing together on the stage as George H.W. Bush, who recently was hospitalized, was escorted to the stage in a wheelchair. This was the first time they appeared together publicly since January 2009, when they gathered at the White House before Obama was sworn in to office.Former President George H. W. Bush, the 41st president, spoke briefly, thanking the throngs of people present for turning out to honor his son.While his speech was brief, the standing ovation for him that followed wasn't and his son and wife helped him to stand to acknowledge the cheers.Former President Carter thanked George W. Bush for his work to help find peace between North and South Sudan in 2005 and for expanding help for Africa."Mr. President, let me say I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you," he said.And former President Clinton, who said he just enjoys talking about politics with George W. Bush, praised the 43rd president for continuing his work in many areas, including global health."We are here to celebrate a country we all love, a service we all rendered," he said, looking at Bush. "I am very grateful."The George W. Bush Presidential Center is a 226,560-square-foot three-story center that houses a library and a museum, presidential archives, a public policy institute, the Bush foundation and a 15-acre park, all honoring Bush's two terms in office.The red brick-and-limestone building located on a 23-acre site at SMU features signature architecture such as Freedom Hall, which features a 360-degre high-definition video wall and a 67-foot tower has a lantern that glows at night. Located at the alma mater of Laura Bush, the center was designed by New York architect Robert A.M. Stern and landscaped by Michael Van Valkenburgh.Inside, it features a Decisions Point Theater and a life-size "Oval Office" that looks as though it was taken straight out of the White House during Bush's tenure from 2001 to 2009. Outside, visitors find the Texas Rose Garden, a version of the White House Rose Garden with plants that flourish in the Texas heat.The center will open to the public on May 1.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.'Happy day'As Bush began his speech, he started off with a grin and the words: "Oh, happy day."He thanked the other presidents for their kind words - and thanked the large crowd for showing up to celebrate the dedication of the center. He gave a special shout-out to his former Vice President Dick Cheney, who he said "served with loyalty, principle and strength.""I'm proud to call you friend," said Bush, who left the White House in January 2009 after serving eight years in office.He also thanked all the people who worked to make the presidential center a reality - and all those who have stood by him as he walked a political path that took him from serving as Texas' governor to the president of the United States."This is a milestone in a journey that began 20 years ago, when I announced my candidacy for governor of Texas," he said. "In politics, you learn who your real friends are. Our friends have stood with us every step of the way."Today is a day to give you a big thanks."He noted that elected officials must "serve a cause greater than themselves" and as they do that, supporters come and go. But in the end, he said leaders "are defined by the convictions they hold."And he believes that when future generations study the issues from his presidency, and the exhibits in this presidential center, "they are going to find out that we stayed true to our convictions."Invitation onlyThe invitation-only guest list of attendees was an elite group that included former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Australia Prime Minister John Howard, Israel Ehud Olmert, Ghana President John Kufuor, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Texas Sens. John Cornyn and Ted Cruz, U.S. Reps. Kay Granger of Fort Worth, Joe Barton of Ennis, Michael Burgess of Lewisville, Roger Williams of Austin and Kenny Marchant of Coppell.Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Ross Perot Jr., former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and Texas Rangers' Nolan Ryan were also among those who attended.Ryan, who occasionally is seen enjoying a Texas Rangers game sitting next to the former president who once co-owned the baseball team, said he showed up because he wanted to show his support for his longtime friend."It's a very special day in the Bushes' lives and we want to be here to share it with them," Ryan said.Inside the museum, there are more than 40,000 items from the Bush presidency, ranging from the 9 mm Glock pistol that Saddam Hussein had when he was found in a spider hole in Iraq, to the bullhorn that Bush used when visiting ground zero after 9-11. Other items include more than 200 million emails, 80 terabytes of digital information, nearly 70 million pages of documents and nearly 4 million photos.Laura Bush said the museum reminds her of her husband standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and all the things he tried to do to guide the country through the days, weeks and months after the attacks."My George is a man who, when someone needs a hand, offers them his arms," she said. "This is the spirit I hope is forever captured in this building."Anna M. Tinsley, (817) 390-7610Twitter: @annatinsley
George W. Bush Presidential Center
Location: Southern Methodist University, 2943 SMU Blvd.
Dedication: The invitation-only ceremony will be from 10 to 11:30 a.m. today. An event to light Freedom Hall, a space topped with a lantern-shaped roof that will glow at night, will be held from 8:30 to 9 p.m. Most cable news networks will cover the ceremony, and there's a webcast at www.bushcenter.org.
Public opening: The center officially opens to the public Wednesday. The hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.
To learn more: For 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