WASHINGTON -- To nobody's surprise, all four living former presidents were on their best behavior the other day at the dedication of the library and museum named for the latest of them, George W. Bush, at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The honoree's father, George H.W., along with Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, dutifully latched on to the positive about the junior Bush's eight years in the Oval Office, eliminated the negative and, as in Johnny Mercer's old song, didn't mess with Mr. In Between.
Subjects of controversy were left to exhibits at the new presidential complex library that consider key decisions he made in office. They present his reasons and give visitors an opportunity to say what they would have done. Clinton for one lauded the junior Bush's openness in inviting their views.
President Obama praised his predecessor for his "incredible strength and resolve" in responding to the 9/11 terrorist attacks that were the centerpiece of the second Bush's administration. In a personal assessment that probably rankled many of the honoree's critics, Obama called him "a good man" who was "comfortable in his own skin." The description is one many say about the incumbent himself, at least the second part.
The 43rd president was given due credit for his focus on fighting the deadly scourge of HIV/Aids and attempting education and immigrations reforms. In the spirit of the occasion, he joked of America's hallowed right to disagree with its leader: "I created plenty of opportunities to exercise that right."
But on the whole the celebration was an exercise in the suspension of disbelief -- over his major decisions in foreign policy, including treatment of war detainees, and in dealing with a domestic economy that hung on the ropes as he departed office.
On this, his best day since then, George W. Bush maintained the same composure he has shown throughout his return to private life -- silent and immune to the public criticism that has followed his tenure. His major contribution to his party has been in keeping a low public profile, steering clear of defending his tenure and of criticizing Obama's presidency.
By choice or party decision, he was absent from the 2012 Republican National Convention and played little if any role in the campaign of GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in which party divisions and an uncertain trumpet contributed to its defeat.
After the 9/11 attacks, the argument that Bush's mobilization of homeland security kept America safe thereafter sustained him politically through two full terms. But his inability to finish the job in Afghanistan was a major element in Obama's election in 2008.
Poignancy was added to the celebration by the appearance in a wheelchair of the 41st president, the 88-year-old and recently hospitalized father of the honoree, displaying his customary good nature and obvious pride in his eldest son. For all his own shortcomings in his single presidential term, the country generally has retained a softer spot for him than for his eldest offspring.
At this time, a minor debate has broken out over how history will appraise the son. One lesser-known academic has argued that prominent historians and presidential scholars have engaged in a rush to judgment in casting George W. as the worst American president to date.
The most recent Washington Post/ABC News poll indicates, however, that his approval rating has climbed from 30 percent in 2008 to 47 percent now, and his disapproval has dropped from 68 percent then to 50 percent.
But he still he has a way to go to enjoy the kind of opinion turnaround that another once-dismissed president, Harry Truman, experienced after leaving office in 1953. From a low of 22 percent approval, he rose steadily until he is now often listed among the 10 most highly regarded presidents. That seems a height the man known as Dubya is unlikely ever to attain.
(Jules Witcover's latest book is "Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption" (William Morrow). You can respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org.)