DALLAS, Texas, April 25, 2013 (AFP) - President Barack Obama lauded George W. Bush Thursday for facing a storm of terrorism head on, putting ideology aside as his predecessor opened a new library that makes his case for history.
With all US living presidents at his side, Bush admitted some of the choices he made were unpopular, but said he had always been driven to spread freedom, in two tumultuous terms marked by the Iraq War and the September 11 attacks.
The dedication of the 226,000 square foot library, museum and policy center in Dallas put a capstone on Bush's political career, and it will now be left to historians to debate his controversial legacy.
Obama, who had flagrant foreign and economic policy disagreements with Bush, chose to dwell on the qualities of the 43rd president's character, and spoke of a special bond with one of the few men alive who sat in the Oval Office.
"He's comfortable in his own skin. He knows who he is. He doesn't put on any pretenses ... he is a good man."
Obama recalled the grief-stricken days after the 2001 Al-Qaeda strikes on New York and Washington, when Bush steadied a nation traumatized by terrorism and began to plot the US response.
"We're reminded of the incredible strength and resolve that came through that bullhorn as he stood amid the rubble and the ruins of Ground Zero, promising to deliver justice to those who had sought to destroy our way of life.
"No one can be completely ready for this office," Obama said.
"But America needs leaders who are willing to face the storm head on. That's what president George W. Bush chose to do."
Bush, who led America through the dramatic first decade of the 21st Century, wiped away a tear as the tributes rolled, in a ceremony lent added poignancy by the frailty of his father, and fellow ex-president, George H.W. Bush, 88.
"There was a time in my life when I wasn't likely to be found at a library much less found one," Bush, 66, quipped in a reference to his misspent youth.
The 43rd president made an impassioned case that controversial foreign policy he pursued, which featured the concept of pre-emptive war, was born of a principled desire to spread freedom.
"I believe that freedom is a gift from God and the hope of every human heart," Bush said, reprising an argument familiar from the days when the failure to find weapons of mass destruction put his Iraq policy on the line.
"When our freedom came under attack, we made the tough decisions required to keep the American people safe," said Bush, who choked up in the coda to his speech when he paid tribute to his "brave and noble" country.
The new library, on the campus of Southern Methodist University, is stuffed with millions of papers and artifacts of Bush's White House years, but the horror, and political aftermath of September 11 casts a long shadow.
A steel beam twisted in the inferno of the World Trade Center reminds visitors of the fury of terror attacks which led America into war in Afghanistan and eventually Iraq and exacted a heavy human and economic price.
In a series of interviews to pave the way for the opening of the library, financed by private benefactors, Bush expressed no regrets.
Asked by ABC News whether he had any second thoughts about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which is convulsed in a new wave of violence, Bush said: "I am comfortable in the decision-making process."
Like Obama, former Democratic presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter chose to skip over their differences with Bush.
Both chose to praise him for the emergency plan to battle HIV and AIDS in Africa which is credited with saving thousands of lives.
"I like president Bush," Clinton said, and praised the Republican's sense of humor and no-nonsense manner.
World leaders who were closest to Bush were also in Dallas to honor their former comrade-in-arms, including British ex-prime minister Tony Blair and former Australian prime minister John Howard, who was in Washington on September 11.
Key members of Bush's administration were also on hand -- hoping that history will look kindly on their boss after he left office in 2009 under a cloud of unpopularity.
Bush meanwhile had a kind word for his hawkish vice president Dick Cheney, after reports that their friendship fractured during his second term.
"He served with loyalty, principle and strength," Bush said.