Decisions, Decisions: Shoveling Dirt on the New George W. Bush Presidential Center with a Handful of Old Friends

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Of course you've heard that George W. Bush has a new book out in stores, and this morning, you couldn't help but hear he was getting started building his new library, too. Onstage under a big tent on the Southern Methodist University campus, Bush was shifting excitedly from one foot to the next, breaking out into smirks and great, beaming smiles as he waited his turn to speak. There was no question whose special day this was.

Organizers estimated there'd be 3,000 out in the seats this morning, including hundreds of SMU students, Mitt Romney, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and, uh, Wayne Newton. I was early enough to score a front-row seat, from which I was advised I had better not move unless I wanted a Secret Service escort to the ground -- but you might have just as easily enjoyed the comfort and relative freedom of home by following along on CSPAN-2 instead. (Our Stephen Masker's slide show is here.)

Along with the hordes of Bush Administration alums in the crowd, he was joined onstage by Condoleezza Rice, who's now the chairman of the Bush Institute board, and Dick Cheney, looking slimmer and more Dreyfuss-like than ever. "I can't thank Dick enough for coming" Bush said. "I've been doing all these interviews trying to peddle my book," he said, and he wanted to set the record straight about Cheney this morning. "He was a great Vice President of the United States, and I'm proud to call him a friend."

Cheney was even more deferential to Bush, fawning over the book's performance in stores. "The robust sales don't surprise me in the least," Cheney said. "You always said you had faith in history's judgment, and history is beginning to come around."

Leaving his cane beside his chair as he took the podium, Cheney couldn't help himself from a partisan dig, offering that, with all the funding in place and the workers lined up to get started with construction tomorrow, "this may be the only shovel-ready project in America."

The project's being managed by Manhattan Construction, which also built the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, and is slated to wrap up in February 2013. Manhattan vice president Bob Bowen told Unfair Park before the ceremony that as the first presidential library built since 9/11, it'll be the most secure of the 13 libraries built so far.

Demonstrators gathered at a few points outside the event perimeter, some in black hooded "Arrest Bush" sweatshirts along Mockingbird Lane. Outside the tent, you could hear the slow distant taunts of "war criminal" repeating, but inside before the event, SMU President Gerald Turner told reporters that controversy like this is what a university is all about.

Up at the podium, National Archivist David Ferreiro said the three-story building will be the best presidential library ever, with more modern features than any of the others -- presumably even more impressive than the life-size talking LBJ robot on display at his library down in Austin. Ferreiro said the library would hold 43,000 artifacts from Bush's presidency, and archives of 80 terabytes of other information -- including 200 million e-mails. "As you told me back in June when we met, Mr. President, not one of them is yours."

Bush kept his remarks brief, thanking the soldiers who came to the ceremony from Fort Hood -- "I really don't miss much about Washington, but I do miss being your Commander-in-Chief" -- and nodding to SMU Student Body President Jake Torres. "Mister President," Bush told him, "A word of advice: It is never too soon to begin thinking about your memoirs."

Laura Bush closed the ceremony with the longest remarks of all, about the importance of the women's initiative at Bush's policy institute, which she said would inform all the other work done there, focusing on efforts around the world to promote women's health and literacy.

Bush closed out the ceremony by keeping things characteristically casual. "And now, ladies and gentlemen," he said, "the speeches are over. It is time to shovel ... dirt."

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