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. President Barack Obama praised his predecessor's strength and resolve after Sept. 11, calling Bush a "good man" who faced the storm head on.
"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."
Obama and Bush 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 aid to the people of Africa, his effort to reach across the aisle on issues like 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. For Bush, 66, the ceremony also marked his unofficial return to the public eye four years after the end of his deeply polarizing presidency.
The five men have been described as members of the world's most exclusive club, but Obama said they are "more like a support group."
"Being president above all is a humbling job," Obama said. He said there were moments that they make mistakes and wish they could turn back the clock, but "we love this country and we do our best."
In a reminder of his duties as the current Oval Office inhabitant, Obama planned to travel to Waco in the afternoon for a memorial for victims of last week's deadly fertilizer plant explosion.
Obama praised Bush for pushing to reform the country's immigration system, although Congress never agreed to go along during Bush's time in office. Obama said he hopes they will this year. "And if we do that it will be in large part thanks for the hard work of President George W. Bush," Obama said.
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, and his son and wife helped him to his feet to recognize the applause.
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," Clinton said.
President Jimmy Carter praised Bush for his role in helping secure peace between North and South Sudan in 2005 and his approval of expanded aid to the nations of Africa. "Mr. President let me say that I am filled with admiration for you and deep gratitude for you about the great contributions you've made to the most needy people on earth," Carter said.
Former first lady Laura Bush said the library isn't just about her husband, but reflects the world during his time as the first president as the 21st century. "Here we remember the heartbreak and heroism of Sept. 11 and the bravery of those who answered the call to defend our country," she said.