A Gathering of Presidents at the Opening of the George W. Bush Library, Decades of Living History Were on Display

Article excerpt

We needed this past week, with its moments of introspection, its reflections on national purpose, its symbols of national concord. Many of them, of course, 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 psyche. The image of what happened in Dallas Thursday is fresher, and 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 like this, carefully intertwined skeins of expressions and omissions: artfully crafted, sometimes stilted, 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, and 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 Barack 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 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 displaying 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.

Because 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 and, despite his age in the White House, a vision sharper than any of those in attendance. In a way he was there as well. You could almost see the smile, which was genuine, and hear the stage laugh, which was not, and the love of country, which all of these men -- even the ones, like Mr. Clinton and Mr. Obama, who raged against it when young -- came to embrace in the office that Reagan once held.

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

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

Mr. Obama will never 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. …