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DALLAS — President Barack Obama on Thursday praised his predecessor at the dedication of his library for showing strength and resolve in the days after the Sept. 11 attacks and said if Congress passes immigration reform "it will be in large part thanks to the hard work of President George W. Bush."
Obama spoke along with all four living former presidents in a rare reunion honoring one of their own at the opening of the George W. Bush Presidential Center. "To know President George W. Bush is to like him," Obama said.
The presidents — Bush, Barack Obama, 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.
It was a day for recollections and reveries, and no recriminations or remorse.
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 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."
He said Bush started an important conversation by speaking to the American people about the United States as a nation of laws and a nation of immigrants and he hopes Congress will act this year to pass reform, which Bush wasn't able to achieve.
The leaders put aside the profound ideological differences that have divided them for years for a day of pomp and pleasantries. For Bush, 66, the ceremony also marked his unofficial return to the public eye four years after the end of his deeply polarizing presidency. "Oh happy day," Bush said as he took the stage.
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 Clinton's 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.
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.
Presidential politics also hung over the event. Ahead of the ceremony, former first lady Barbara Bush made waves by brushing aside talk of her son, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, running for the White House in 2016.
"We've had enough Bushes," said Mrs. Bush, the wife of George H.W. Bush and mother of George W. Bush. She spoke in an interview with NBC's "Today" show.
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