DALLAS -- Presidents past and present lionized one of their own Thursday, putting politics aside as President George W. Bush dedicated the library that documents his place in history.
"My deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom," Bush said. "I believe that freedom is a gift from God and the hope of every human heart."
President Barack Obama praised his predecessor's strength and resolve after 9/11, calling Bush a "good man" who faced the storm head-on. They spoke along with the three other living former presidents in a rare reunion at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. "To know President George W. Bush is to like him," Obama said.
The presidents lauded Bush's effort to reach across the aisle on issues such as immigration and education and his leadership in the days after the 2001 terrorist attacks. But they avoided the two wars that dominated much of his time in office -- Iraq and Afghanistan.
The presidents -- Obama, Bush, Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter -- were cheered by a crowd of former White House officials and world leaders as they took the stage together to open the dedication. They were joined on stage by their wives -- the nation's current and former first ladies -- for the outdoor ceremony on a sun-splashed Texas morning.
"There was a time in my life when I wasn't likely to be found at a library, much less found one," Bush, 66, joked.
President George H.W. Bush, who has been hospitalized recently for bronchitis, spoke haltingly for just about 30 seconds while seated in his wheelchair, thanking guests for coming out to support his son. A standing ovation lasted nearly as long as his comments.
Clinton, too, was warmly received by the heavily Republican crowd, who applauded and laughed along with his joke-peppered speech. He concluded on a serious note about the importance of the leaders coming together. "Debate and difference is an important part of every free society," he said.
Key moments and themes from George W. Bush's presidency -- the harrowing, the controversial and the inspiring -- would not be far removed from the minds of the presidents and guests assembled to dedicate the center, where interactive exhibits invite scrutiny of Bush's major choices as president, such as the financial bailout, the Iraq War and his focus on fighting HIV and AIDS in Africa.
Situated in a 15-acre park at Southern Methodist University, the center includes a full-scale replica of the Oval Office as it looked during Bush's tenure, along with a piece of steel from the World Trade Center and the bullhorn that Bush used at Ground Zero three days after 9/11.