George W. Bush paused to observe a 25-foot mangled steel beam from the 85th floor of the second tower of the World Trade Center that collapsed on 9/11.
“He stopped and looked at that steel and you could tell how much that affected him and still affects him,” said Bruce Fields, the new senior vice president for Manhattan Construction Co.
Fields, 53, a new Naples resident, recalled his tour with the former president of the exhibit “10 Days After 9/11” at the new George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
Fields — who oversaw the two-year construction of the privately funded $250 million library — will attend a ceremony Thursday to dedicate the center at Southern Methodist University. It opens to the public May 1.
He looks forward for the historic moment when President Barack Obama joins the four living, former U.S. presidents who will attend the ceremony: Bush, his father, George H.W. Bush; Bill Clinton; and Jimmy Carter.
Other Southwest Floridians planning to attend include Ave Maria University President Jim Towey and Francis Rooney, whom George W. Bush appointed as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See. Rooney, 59, served in that position from 2005 to 2008.
Rooney of Naples, chairman of Manhattan Construction, said the new library will serve as a policy institute for many of the former president’s initiatives. They include women’s rights, especially in the Middle East, and Bush’s President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) initiative, which was a $15 billion commitment from 2003 to 2008 to fight the global HIV/AIDS pandemic.
The 20,000-square-foot permanent exhibit of the library center will include interactive exhibits and a complete replica of Bush’s Oval Office, which will face in the same direction as the real one.
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Library workers even flew to the White House to see if wood flooring selected for the replica matched the same shade as the real thing. It didn’t, so work crews found the exact wood to match the museum, Fields said.
All tapestries, carpeting and other elements of the Bush Oval Office were made by the same manufacturer, he said.
“President Bush and his wife were very hands on,” he said of the couple’s role in designing the center.
In Decision Points Theater, guests will sit in a replica presidential seat and make choices when confronted with options, which often are changing. They’ll be able to see the consequences of the events based on their decisions, Fields said.
“It’s kind of breaking new ground on what presidential libraries can be. It’s going to have an interactive dimension to it,” said Towey, who served as director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives and was assistant to the president from 2002 to May 2006.
The Bush center also features a 15-acre park with many wildflowers, including the Texas bluebonnet, Fields said. The Bushes wanted to wait until the spring to allow the wildflower meadows to mature, he said.
The park also will include a replica of the Rose Garden.
George W. Bush often visited the construction site, which, at its peak, had 600 workers.
“He would stop and talk to every construction worker, shake their hand and tell them how much he appreciated their work,” Fields said.
On the eve of the Bush library dedication, recent polls show Bush’s approval rating at 47 percent — his highest level since 2005. Bush, who left office in 2009 with a 23 percent approval rating, stood for low taxes and free enterprise, Rooney said.
“I wish he was back in (office),” he said. “People are maybe starting to realize that the values of his administration in these many areas were enduring views.”
Towey said Thursday should mark a new beginning for the Bush presidential legacy.
“We’re already seeing the first blooms of spring for President Bush’s reputation and the contributions he made,” he said.
“He gets bigger the more time passes, the more people realize the class and dignity he brought and grace under pressure he brought. Nobody felt he was without mistakes but he made significant contributions to our country and our place in the world.”
Fields, who moved to Naples in January and will oversee the Southwest Florida division of Manhattan Construction, said he hopes the dedication ceremony will serve to unite people.
“We all know our differences and we need things to bring us together and this is one of them,” he said. “Maybe it will open doors.”