LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Bill Clinton, America’s first baby boomer president, opened his library Thursday with a rock ’n’ roll gala that hailed the $165 million glass-and-steel museum as “a gift to the future by a man who always believed in the future.”
Despite a steady, bone-chilling rain, nearly 30,000 people joined a celebration that included tributes from President Bush, his father and former President Carter. Rock stars Bono and The Edge of the band U2 performed a three-song set before Clinton spoke to the crowd .
“The story that began in a little house on Hervey Street in Hope, Ark., inspires people from every background all over America,” President Bush said of Clinton’s rise from small-town beginnings to the White House.
The William J. Clinton Presidential Center is a sleek, futuristic complex that contains more than 80 million items from the former president’s life, including photos, e-mails, excerpts from famous speeches and gifts from world leaders. The library celebrates eight years of peace and prosperity and dismisses his impeachment as a Republican vendetta.
The 27-acre complex is cantilevered out over the Arkansas River — an allusion to Clinton’s desire during his presidency to build a “bridge to the 21st century.”
“What it is to me is a symbol of not only what I tried to do but what I want to do with the rest of my life, building bridges from yesterday to tomorrow, building bridges across racial and religious and ethnic and income and political divides,” said Clinton, 58, accompanied by his wife and daughter.
“I want young people to want to see not only what I did with my life, but to see what they could do with their lives,” he said, “because this is mostly the story of what we the people can do when we work together.”
Bush called the library “a gift to the future by a man who always believed in the future, and today we thank him for loving and serving America.”
A number of celebrities traveled to Little Rock for the opening, including actors Ed Begley Jr., Kevin Spacey and Robin Williams, and Democratic luminaries John Kerry and Al Gore, Clinton’s vice president.
Clinton said that during the eight years he and Gore led the country, the nation reduced the national debt and reformed the military while reducing poverty and making college accessible to more people.
A tent had been set up Wednesday to shield the rain, but it was taken down because of faith placed in an optimistic weather report. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton said the new library “is like my husband: It’s open, it’s expansive, it’s welcoming, it’s filled with life, and the exhibits tell the story of someone who loves his fellow man, who cares deeply about all of our children, who recognizes our common humanity.”
President Bush admired Clinton’s talent as a man of the people, telling the story of a voter who praised Clinton’s ability to look you in the eye, shake your hand, hold your baby and pet your dog, “all at the same time.”
The president’s father said he was vexed by Clinton’s political skill when he lost his re-election bid to the Arkansas governor in 1992.
“It has to be said that Bill Clinton was one of the most gifted American political figures in modern times. Believe me — I learned that the hard way,” the elder Bush said to laughter. “He made it look too easy, and oh, how I hated him for that.”
Clinton chose the site for the library in 1997, and construction has transformed a rusty, abandoned warehouse district into a sprawling complex that has fueled $1 billion in development in downtown Little Rock.
A presidential timeline at the library explores Clinton’s highlights and headaches — economic prosperity and peace efforts in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and the Middle East along with his partisan fights with Congress, Whitewater and his impeachment and acquittal over lies told in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
The Lewinsky matter and Whitewater are covered briefly in an alcove dedicated to the “politics of persecution,” which also mentions Newt Gingrich’s “Contract With America.” Library organizers said Clinton wanted the scandals mentioned in the context of a vicious political battle.
A highlight of the museum is the only full-scale replica of the Oval Office in a presidential library, the last major exhibit on the two-story tour.