UNIVERSITY PARK, Texas — President Obama joined all of his living predecessors Thursday to pay tribute to George W. Bush as the arguments of the past decade gave way, at least for a day, to a more generous appraisal of a leader who responded to great challenges with determination and grit.
The current and former presidents gathered to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum here on the campus of Southern Methodist University. Joining them were a number of current and former world leaders and lawmakers, hundreds of former Bush administration officials, and thousands of admirers.
Obama praised Bush for his resolve after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, his compassion in fighting AIDS in Africa, and his commitment to overhauling the immigration system. Treading lightly over their disagreements over Iraq and other issues, the president said his predecessor had fought for what he thought was best for his country.
‘‘We know President Bush the man,’’ Obama told the crowd in front of the brick-and-limestone center on a bright, sunny Texas day. ‘‘To know the man is to like the man. Because he’s comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn’t put on any pretenses. He takes his job seriously, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. He is a good man.’’
It was an emotional moment for Bush, coming four years after leaving office with historic low poll numbers. Bathed in the admiration of his former team and his presidential peers, he recalled the goals that guided his time in office and choked up as he finished his speech. Sitting down to applause, he smiled and wiped tears from his eyes.
‘‘In democracy, the purpose of public office is not to fulfill personal ambition,’’ he said. ‘‘Elected officials must serve a cause greater than themselves. The political winds blow left and right, polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions that they hold.’’
Bush, 66, acknowledged the controversies of his time, noting that freedom means the freedom to disagree.
‘‘It’s fair to say I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right,’’ he said with a smile.
But he added that visitors to his library will see how he saw it.