Standing inside his presidential library moments before its formal dedication Thursday, former President George W. Bush said he wants the facility to teach the public about the controversial decisions he made, not necessarily convince people he was right about them.
“I never thought about my critics. I thought about just laying out for the American people the events that began the 21st century and let them understand what it’s like to make a decision, talk about the different events that took place, talk about some of the successes and some of the failures,” he told TODAY’S Matt Lauer during the early morning tour.
“Because ultimately, history will judge whether critics are right or wrong. But this is a place to educate people.”
The George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, a $250 million complex that sits on 23 acres of the Southern Methodist University campus in Dallas, opens Thursday in a ceremony with President Obama and former Presidents, Clinton and Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair and other foreign dignitaries also will be in attendance.
The museum features more than 43,000 artifacts from Bush’s eight-year presidency, including 70 million pages of paper records, 50,000 audio and videotapes and the largest digital collection of any presidential library.
The artifacts help relay the Supreme Court decision that ultimately handed Bush the White House in 2000, as well as key policy decisions he made on tax relief, education reform and faith-based initiatives.
The museum also features a twisted metal beam from the September 11 terrorist attacks that Bush said defined his presidency probably more than anything.
“I became a war-time president, something I didn’t want to be,” he said.
Bush said his role as the nation's steward crystallized the moment that his then-chief of staff, Andy Card, interrupted him during a story he was reading to an elementary classroom to tell him about the attack on the Twin Towers in New York.
“My job became clarified that minute in the classroom, and that is to protect the homeland,” he said.
Bush said he believes the country is safer today than it was a decade ago, if only because the nation is more aware of its vulnerability. He also said he has no regrets about decisions he made following September 11 attacks, including those involving water boarding and other severe interrogation techniques utilized by the CIA on terrorist suspects.
"My duty was to protect the homeland, and I made some very controversial decisions," he said.
"People are going to argue about whether such-and-such yielded information and I’m telling you it did, and that without information, you can’t protect the homeland."
Bush said he doesn’t miss life in the Oval Office because "I had all the fame and power I needed for 8 years,” but he empathizes with President Obama, particularly now as he faces decisions surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings.
“I wish the president all the best in dealing with the trauma and the heartbreak, because I understand that part of the job of being president is the ‘comforter of chief,’" he said.
Bush also said he is “absolutely” at peace with the decisions he made during his presidency.
“I told people, when I go home, I want to look in the mirror, I didn’t compromise my principles, and I didn’t,” he said. “And I know I gave it my best. I gave my best shot for America. And that’s all you can do in life.”