A large screen displays images and video of the events and days that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks as part of an exhibit in the museum area at the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas. (Benny Snyder / AP)
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DALLAS — A tour of the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum begins in a bright area representing his early domestic agenda, but with one turn, visitors find themselves in a darkened room surrounded by chilling reminders of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
This contrast, symbolizing Bush’s abrupt shift in priorities less than eight months into his first term, is among the most poignant exhibits at a museum being dedicated this week that also chronicles the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, the Florida recount and various other historical events.
Bush told The Associated Press last week that he wanted to make sure the part of the museum devoted to 9/11 was powerful enough to remind visitors of how much the world changed that day.
“It’s very emotional and very profound,” Bush said. “One of the reasons it has to be is because memories are fading rapidly and the profound impact of that attack is becoming dim with time, and we want to make sure people remember not only the lives lost and the courage shown but the lesson that the human condition overseas matters to the national security of our country.”
The George W. Bush Presidential Center, which includes the library and museum along with Bush’s policy institute, will be dedicated Thursday on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas. All the living presidents, including President Barack Obama and Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, plan to attend. It will open to the public on May 1.
The museum uses everything from news clips to interactive screens to artifacts to tell the story of Bush’s eight years in office. A container of chads — the remnants of the famous Florida punch cards — is part of an exhibit about the 2000 election, which Bush won after the Supreme Court ordered Florida to stop its recount process more than a month after Election Day.
In the 9/11 display, called the “Day of Fire,” video images from the attacks flash around a twisted metal beam recovered from the wreckage of the World Trade Center. The exhibit also includes the bullhorn Bush used days later to address a crowd of rescue workers at ground zero: “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.”
Longtime Bush adviser Karen Hughes was standing just a few feet away from the president when he began making the unplanned speech. Hughes said she remembers turning to Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Joe Allbaugh and saying, “That’s going to be in his library someday.”
Brendan Miniter, who served as the liaison for the Bushes as the museum’s exhibits were developed, said the idea was to present the facts and “let them speak for themselves.” He said they also did not want to shy away from more controversial aspects of the administration.
“I suspect that people would have thought that we wouldn’t have talked about say enhanced interrogation techniques or the decision to create the prison in Guantanamo,” he said, adding that former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is featured in a video about why the administration felt both were necessary.
Visitors also are taken through a timeline of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. A display at the end makes the case against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, including that he ignored 17 United Nations Security Council resolutions demanding he disclose his weapons programs and fired at British and American pilots monitoring the U.N.-imposed no-fly zone.
The exhibit also acknowledges the biggest controversy about the justification for war: No weapons of mass destruction were found.
A “Decision Points Theater,” lined with rows of interactive screens, seeks to put visitors in the shoes of a president. It provides facts for them to decide such questions as whether to invade Iraq or provide bailout money during the financial crisis.
“It’s conflicting,” Miniter said. “You go to the Capitol Hill and somebody will say you need to provide some resources to stabilize the financial industry, and then somebody else will say no, let it work itself out, don’t do anything.”
A “Freedom Wall” in the museum features pictures including a soldier greeting children, former first lady Laura Bush supporting women’s rights and the Bushes meeting with freedom advocates.
The impact of AIDS around the world — a focus of Bush’s international outreach efforts — is illustrated with a large map of the world. Small photographs of the faces of those suffering from the disease are placed into the shapes of the continents of the world, with those with more AIDS cases, including Africa, looming larger.
The museum also features a section on life at the White House, displaying a ball that obviously got some heavy use by the Bushes’ late dog Barney. A full-scale replica of the Oval Office leads outside to an actual rose garden. The center also features a 15-acre park recreating a Texas prairie.
Bush said his focus will continue to be the George W. Bush Institute, which has featured programs focused on education, economic growth, global health and human freedom. Through the institute, his activities have included yearly bike rides with wounded military veterans and traveling to Africa as part of an effort among several groups to fight cervical and breast cancer in sub-Saharan Africa.
He also recently took up oil painting, inspired by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Bush, who was the 43rd president, signs his works “43.”
“I’m a beginner and I tell people that the signature on my paintings is worth more than the paintings,” Bush said.