Imagine having to deliver a tribute for someone you’ve openly excoriated for years.
That was essentially the task President Obama had before him Thursday in his speech at the dedication ceremony for former President George W. Bush’s Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas.
Obama has used the 43rd president as a foil for more than a decade: from the anti-Iraq War speech he gave in Chicago in 2002 as a state senator; to his 2008 presidential campaign, in which he argued the GOP presidential nominee would extend Bush’s controversial policies; to four years later, when he warned that another nominee would return the nation to the Bush era.
And many of Obama’s supporters, who agreed with his negative interpretation of Bush’s presidency, would have it no other way.
So there Obama was Thursday, forced by the demands of the occasion to utter words both respectful to his predecessor yet true to his many past criticisms of same. Not the easiest task, but that’s what speechwriters are for.
Obama confronted the difficulty by suggesting that, like all presidents, Bush made missteps. The president didn’t get specific.
Obama included the mention of “mistakes” in a section of his speech in which he expressed sympathy with Bush:
“The first thing I found in that desk the day I took office was a letter from George, and one that demonstrated his compassion and generosity. For he knew that I would come to learn what he had learned — that being president, above all, is a humbling job. There are moments where you make mistakes. There are times where you wish you could turn back the clock. And what I know is true about President Bush, and I hope my successor will say about me, is that we love this country and we do our best.”
The dedication of a presidential library is a far different event than a campaign rally. But by not even mentioning by the headline controversies of his predecessor’s administration — not the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina or federal deficits — Obama followed the instincts of Richard Nixon more than any other sitting president at such a dedication.
In 1971 at the dedication of the Lyndon Baines Johnson library, Nixon didn’t mention Vietnam.
By contrast, Ronald Reagan not only reminded the audience of the partisan and ideological differences between Republicans and Democrats at the 1986 dedication of Jimmy Carter’s library, but he also specifically mentioned the U.S. hostages in Iran. Of course, he did so to praise his predecessor for his labors in trying to free them.
George H.W. Bush even let the word “Watergate” slip from his lips at the 1990 dedication of the Nixon library, though that was the full extent of his reference to the scandal that brought down the 37th president.
Obama clearly wasn’t going there on Iraq, however. Instead, he would let the memories of his listeners fill in the blanks however they saw fit.