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David Shribman: A gathering of presidents

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We needed this past week, with its moments of introspection, its reflections on national purpose, its symbols of national concord. Many of them, of course, occurred in Boston, site of terrorism in 2013. One of them occurred in Dallas, site of tragedy in 1963.

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The images of what happened in Boston already have been seared into the national psyche. The image of what happened in Dallas on Thursday is fresher, and while ceremonial rather than spontaneous, it was a powerful statement about the noblest American values: Duty. Service. Reconciliation. Unity.

It was there, in Dallas, that five presidents — all the living chief executives — gathered to dedicate the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum. There is a liturgy to moments like this, carefully intertwined skeins of expressions and omissions: artfully crafted, sometimes stilted, speeches about the burden of office; exhortations of goodwill; eloquent things said and difficult things unsaid. "I like President Bush," Bill Clinton said that morning, and the remark carried the weight of the generous and the genuine.

That was all there, on the campus of Southern Methodist University, on a shiny afternoon when Barack Obama, who for years after his inauguration still pilloried the younger Bush, stood in presidential solidarity with his foil; when the man being honored warmly greeted Clinton, his remarks about how his predecessor had dishonored the White House long forgotten; when Clinton, who ran a tough race against the older Bush, stood beside the wheelchair carrying his 1992 rival, his body language displaying devotion, perhaps even love; and when Clinton and Obama, who cringe every time their names are in the same sentence with Jimmy Carter, nonetheless welcomed the 39th president as one of their own.

Because there, in one stunning Texas tableau, stood most of American history since 1977.

Missing, of course, was Ronald Reagan, who had a gift for conciliation and, despite his age in the White House, a vision sharper than any of those in attendance.

In a way he was there as well. You could almost see the smile, which was genuine, and hear the stage laugh, which was not, and the love of country, which all of these men — even the ones, like Clinton and Obama, who raged against it when young — came to embrace in the office that Reagan once held.

What we saw there, too, was a portrait of a land locked in economic crisis, wracked with social divisions, jolted by terrorism at a precious regional ritual and saddened by the knowledge that its most precious conviction (social mobility and the sturdy belief that the children will surpass their parents) is in grave danger of becoming a myth.

Because these five men, makers of history but responders to history as well, represent so much of our national character.

Obama will never cease being a national symbol, even if his domestic initiatives are forgotten, if his health care initiative fails and if his legacy, like those of presidents between 1865 and 1893, are lost in a mist of memory.

He still will be remembered as a pathfinder — and a symbol of what a nation that yearns to leave its greatest wrong behind can do when the time comes, in the autumn every four years, to look forward and exercise its greatest right.

The younger Bush remains a historical work in progress, which is why some of Thursday’s remarks made awkward swerves around the obstacles of Iraq, "enhanced interrogation techniques" and the economy.

Even so, the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows almost the same rate of approval of Bush’s two terms (47 percent) as disapproval (50 percent). Two Democratic presidents Thursday saluted him for his commitment to Africa. And no one across this broad country will forget the image of Bush and his bullhorn — and the moment in September 2001 when he spoke for America and, on a bully pulpit on a pile of New York rubble, symbolized the nation’s resolve.

Then there is Clinton, impeached and disgraced, bowed and bloodied but never broken, resolute and resilient, a symbol, or maybe two, in his own right.

Despite his riches today — like Herbert Hoover, his life went from modesty to millions — he was, and substantially is, the boy from Hope, the Arkansas town whose name in Clinton’s 1992 campaign so satisfied an American hunger at a moment of economic distress.

But Clinton’s 1996 campaign also offered powerful imagery of a different sort, for he portrayed his re-election bid as a "bridge to the 21st century."

Only now, with former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton the consensus front-runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, do we see the full span of that bridge.

A moment here for the elder Bush, who spoke movingly of "our son." No longer the hyper-frenetic president but still a master of building coalitions, he now is the consensus elder statesman, the onetime symbol of privilege now an enduring and beloved symbol of the "kinder, gentler" values he spoke of in his 1988 acceptance speech.

And finally, Carter, in sunglasses last week. Hardly anyone contests that his was a fraught presidency, pockmarked by inflation, high interest rates, hostages in Iran, national malaise — a word the president never used but seemed peculiarly suited to his era. But do not let it be forgotten Carter was an idealist, and he cleansed American politics of the rot of despair after Watergate.

Carter seems immune from revisionism — the kindly gift from time bestowed on many presidents, Warren G. Harding and Hoover excepted.

But like Hoover, Carter is a remarkable ex-president (a role Clinton plays with particular aplomb as well). A symbol of American virtue in hopeless corners of the globe, and a symbol of the ennobling value of democracy in places of tyranny, Carter’s post-White House life has been as an ambassador for all seasons, to all continents.

The events marking the opening of the first presidential library of the century began with the Pledge of Allegiance, delivered by a female first lieutenant, herself an Army veteran of Iraq. At the library site are twisted girders from the Sept. 11 attacks. Thursday there were speeches, flags, anthems and patriot dreams, undimmed by human tears — all a reminder of this: Presidential libraries, like presidents themselves, are not about individuals. They are about us all.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email him at dshribman@post-gazette.com.

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