DALLAS – Former President George W. Bush, joined by former administration officials including a noticeably thinner former Vice President Dick Cheney and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, broke ground Tuesday on his presidential center.
More than 3,000 people, including friends, supporters and former administration officials attended the event under a giant white tent at Dallas' Southern Methodist University. Outside, there were around 100 protesters joined by a handful of counter-protesters.
"It is hard to believe there is this much excitement about shoveling dirt," quipped Bush.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center, located on the campus of former first lady Laura Bush's alma mater, will include a library and a policy institute and is expected to open in February 2013.
"Today's groundbreaking marks the beginning of a journey," Bush said. "We take the first step toward the construction of the presidential center, which will be a dynamic hub of ideas and actions, based upon timeless principles."
Cheney, who used a cane and looked much thinner after having had heart surgery over the summer, introduced the president. The former vice president told the crowd he wasn't surprised by the "robust sales" of Bush's book "Decision Points," which was released last week.
"Two years after your tour in the White House ended, judgments are a little more measured than they were," Cheney said. "When the times have been tough and critics have been loud, you've always said you've had faith in history's judgment. And history is beginning to come around."
Cheney drew applause when he added, "This may be the only shovel-ready project in America."
Former Colombian President Alvaro Uribe also attended the groundbreaking, as did former Bush administration officials including former White House Press Secretary Ari Fleisher, former Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former Commerce Secretary Don Evans.
Acknowledging a group of soldiers from Fort Hood in the crowd, Bush said: "I really don't miss Washington, but I do miss being your commander in chief."
The center, which will be about 227,000 square feet, will be a modern brick and limestone building set amid a Texas-inspired landscape with wildflowers and prairies.
The included policy institute is already working and will focus on education reform, global health, human freedom and economic growth. Its programs include one aimed at empowering women and girls in Afghanistan and a certification program meant to help principals better manage schools.
An exhibit set to run through Feb. 6 at the university's Meadow's Museum gives the public its first glimpse into Bush's archives, including the bullhorn he used when he visiting ground zero days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the pistol taken from Saddam Hussein when the Iraqi dictator was captured in December 2003.
The presidential library's permanent exhibit will be centered on themes of freedom, opportunity, compassion and responsibility. The library also will have a "decision theater," where visitors can hear a set of facts, then try to decide what they would have done.
Bush — largely out of the public eye since leaving office and returning to Texas — has been back in the spotlight with the release of his book last week. He signed copies in Dallas and appeared on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Bush's presidential library will be the third located in Texas. The library of his father, George H.W. Bush, is located on the campus of Texas A&M in College Station. Lyndon B. Johnson's presidential library is located on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin.
After SMU was announced as a potential site for the center, some SMU faculty members and Methodist ministers expressed opposition, with much of the concern centered on what kind of policies the institute would promote.
Bush and his wife are Methodist.