DALLAS (BP) -- Faith and family are foundational elements guiding a visitor through the newly dedicated George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum in Dallas. Just a few feet into the exhibit area is the testimony to the 43rd U.S. president's faith in God that turned his life around in 1986.
"At age forty, I finally found the strength to [quit drinking], a strength that came from love I had felt from my earliest days, and from faith that I didn't fully discover for many years," Bush wrote. "Faith changes lives. I know because faith changed mine."
As requested by Bush, the museum is a tribute to the principles that guided the president in his public life, Bush Center senior editorial director Brendan Miniter told the Southern Baptist TEXAN newsjournal.
"If you know anything about the Bush family, you know that family is very important to them and how important faith was in President Bush answering the call to service to run for office," Miniter said. "One of the things he wanted to do in his presidency was to help shape the culture in a way to lead people to engage their community. His faith helped guide him in public life to policies that were characterized as compassionate conservatism."
Located at the entry to Southern Methodist University, the 226,000-square-foot facility houses the library, museum and George W. Bush Institute. The museum features a series of biographical panels portraying the strength of family, power of faith, call to service and a campaign of character.
Bush encouraged museum planners to give the public a picture into key decisions during his two terms, including the War on Terror, the response to Hurricane Katrina, the surge in military troops in Iraq and management of the financial crisis, former first lady Laura Bush said during an April 24 news conference.
"One of the things George really wanted was for people to realize and know how many decisions come to the desk of the president," she said. "Nearly every world problem comes to the desk of the president of the United States."
She pointed to an interactive "decision points theater," allowing visitors to consider options based on facts and advice offered.
"The idea was to show people what it's like to have to make decisions quickly, with the press hounding you on when you're going to decide and what you're going to do," she said, "[while relying on] information given from every source, from his own advisors and many other sources as well."
She spoke from the Texas Rose Garden enveloped within a 15-acre urban park outside the museum, which she said provides "a chance to refresh" after walking through the Sept. 11th portion of the museum.
As the chronology is told, the upsetting events of 9/11 came on the heels of a state dinner with the president of Mexico. The bright red ball gown the first lady wore to the dinner is overshadowed by a towering beam from the ruins at Ground Zero in New York City.
The exhibit area highlights priorities Bush intended to be the hallmarks of his presidency, including education reform, tax relief, an enhanced relationship with Mexico and care for AIDS victims around the world.
The library's 43,000 artifacts include a full-sized Oval office, the bullhorn President Bush used to encourage first responders working in the rubble of the Twin Towers on Sept. 14, 2001, and a custom-designed dress worn by the first lady for a state dinner honoring Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II of the United Kingdom.
Permanent exhibits in the entry feature just a few of the gifts to the president from every continent, including such items as a steel dog bowl with paw-shaped feet, an eagle sculpture and an artillery shell casing commemorating a successful military operation.
Hands-on displays are geared to every age, with a kid-friendly finale featuring the Bush family dogs, Scottish Terriers Barney and Miss Beasley, as well as Millie, Barbara and George H.W. Bush's English Springer Spaniel.
President Bush's conviction that "each individual is equal and equally important" is communicated in displays honoring volunteerism and neighborly concern.
"Laura and I share the same basic values. We share a West Texas upbringing that taught us that each individual is equal and equally important, but also that each individual has a responsibility to be a good neighbor and a good citizen," he said.
One panel quoted Bush's words from 2008: "We followed a principle rooted both in our Constitution and the best traditions of our nation. Government should never fund the teaching of faith, but it should support the good works of the faithful."
Tammi Reed Ledbetter is news editor for the Southern Baptist TEXAN
, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.