All five living American presidents past and present gathered in Dallas Thursday to celebrate one of their own at the dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center.

President Barack Obama joined former presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush  to fete the younger Bush at the dedication of the vast library and museum.

Clinton applauded the "vast and beautiful building" and jokingly called it the "latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history."

For his part, the polarizing ex-president sounded confident that the museum would vindicate his embattled legacy.

"When future generations come to this library … they’re going to find out that we were true to our convictions," he said. "We liberated nations from dictatorship and freed people from AIDS."

He teared up briefly as he finished his speech, saying "I will always believe our nation's best days lie ahead."

Bush's father, George H.W. Bush spoke briefly, and received a standing ovation when he rose from his wheelchair to acknowledge the crowd.


U.S. President Barack Obama meets supporters upon his arrival in Dallas Wednesday. Obama travelled to Texas to attend the dedication ceremony of the George W. Bush Presidential Centre in Dallas and a memorial ceremony for those killed in the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas. (Jason Reed/Reuters)

For the younger Bush, 66, the ceremony also marked his unofficial return to the public eye more than four years after the end of his deeply polarizing presidency.

On the sprawling, nine-hectare university campus north of downtown Dallas housing his presidential library, museum and policy institute, Bush will be feted by his father, George H.W. Bush, and the two surviving Democratic former presidents, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. President Barack Obama, fresh off a fundraiser for Democrats the night before, will also speak.  

In a reminder of his duties as the current Oval Office inhabitant, Obama will travel to Waco in the afternoon for a memorial for victims of last week’s deadly fertilizer plant explosion.  

Foreign dignitaries, including former British prime minister Tony Blair, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert and former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi were among the crowd of 10,000 who 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 the international focus on HIV and AIDS.  

On display is the bullhorn that Bush, near the start of his presidency, used to punctuate the chaos at Ground Zero three days after the Sept. 11 attacks. Addressing a crowd of rescue workers amid the ruins of the World Trade Center, Bush said: "I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon."

"Memories are fading rapidly, and the profound impact of that attack is becoming dim with time," Bush told The Associated Press earlier this month. "We want to make sure people remember not only the lives lost and the courage shown, but the lesson that the human condition overseas matters to the national security of our country."

Bush’s library will feature the largest digital holdings of any of the 13 presidential libraries —including more than 70 million pages of paper records, 200 million emails and about 43,000 artifacts — under the auspices of the National Archives and Records Administration, officials said. Situated in a six-hectare urban park at Southern Methodist University, the centre includes 226,000 square feet of indoor space.  

A full-scale replica of the Oval Office as it looked during Bush’s tenure sits on the campus, as does a piece of steel from the World Trade Center. In the museum, visitors can gaze at a container of chads — the remnants of the famous Florida punch card ballots that played a pivotal role in the contested 2000 election that sent Bush to Washington.  

The former president's wife Laura Bush led the design committee, officials said, with a keen eye toward ensuring that her family’s Texas roots were conspicuously reflected. Architects used local materials, including Texas Cordova cream limestone and trees from the central part of the state, in its construction.