Many American presidents have kept prized possessions within reach during their White House years. Franklin D. Roosevelt cherished a 19th century ship model of the U.S.S. Constitution. One of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s favorite gifts was an engraved Steuben glass bowl from his cabinet. And sitting on John F. Kennedy’s desk in the Oval Office was a paperweight made from a coconut shell he had carved with a distress message after his PT-109 was sunk during World War II.
The objects have been bequeathed to the American public, accessible through a visit to each man’s presidential library and museum. And so when the library for George W. Bush opens in 2013 on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, visitors will most likely get to see one of his most treasured items: Saddam Hussein’s pistol.
The gun, a 9 millimeter Glock 18C, was found in the spider hole where the Iraqi leader was captured in December 2003 by Delta Force soldiers, four of whom later presented the pistol to Mr. Bush. Among the thousands of gifts Mr. Bush received as president, the gun became a favorite, a reminder of the pinnacle moment of the Iraq war, according to friends and long-time associates.
Before Mr. Bush left the White House in January, he made arrangements for the gun to be shipped to a national archives warehouse just 18 miles north of his new home in Dallas. His foundation said a final decision had not been made on including the gun in the presidential library. But his associates and visitors to the White House said Mr. Bush had told them of his intention to display it there.
For nearly five years, Mr. Bush kept the mounted, glass-encased pistol in the Oval Office or a study, showing it with pride, especially to military officials, they said. He also let visitors in on a secret: when the pistol was recovered, it was unloaded.
“We were getting ready to leave the Oval Office, and he told us, ‘Wait a minute, guys, I want to show you something,’ ” recalled Pete Hegseth, the chairman of Vets for Freedom, who described a July 2007 visit. “The president moved back into his private study and he came out with the gun, inside this glass case. He said, ‘The Delta guys pulled it off Saddam.’ He was very proud of it.”
Mr. Bush also showed Mr. Hegseth another item: a brick from the Iraq safe house where the Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed by an American air strike in 2006.
The gun is among 40,000 artifacts and gifts the Bushes had collected, including the bullhorn Mr. Bush used to address rescue workers at ground zero and a special edition Cooperstown baseball bat signed by every living Hall of Famer.
Douglas Brinkley, an author and history professor at Rice University, said the pistol opened a psychological window into Mr. Bush’s view of his presidency.
“It represents this Texas notion of the white hats taking out the black hats and keeping the trophy,” Mr. Brinkley said. “It’s a True West magazine kind of pulp western mentality. For President Bush, this pistol represents his greatest moment of triumph, like the F.B.I. keeping Dillinger’s gun. He wants people generations from now to see the gun and say, ‘He got the bad guy.’ ”
Mr. Bush once said his favorite biography was of Sam Houston, the Texas hero who would have kept a gun from a vanquished enemy, Mr. Brinkley said. The fact that Mr. Hussein’s gun was unloaded was an amazing “irony,” he added.
Mark Langdale, the president of the George W. Bush Foundation, said the library would use items to highlight 25 of Mr. Bush’s presidential decisions. “The gun is an interesting artifact, and it tells you that the United States captured Saddam Hussein and disarmed him literally,” Mr. Langdale said. “How we fit that into the decision to go to war, we haven’t gotten to that point yet.”
One longtime friend of Mr. Bush, who like the others spoke on condition of anonymity, said the gun had become as important to Mr. Bush as the police shield given to him by Arlene Howard, the mother of a New York Port Authority officer, George Howard, who died on Sept. 11. He still keeps the shield with him, the friend said.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center will cost $200 million. More than $100 million has already been donated, according to several of Mr. Bush’s friends. The former president has raised much of the money, usually at small luncheons and dinners. Some donors have given as much as $5 million, the friends said.
“The president is working very hard, and the money is rolling in,” one friend said. “People love the man, they think he did a great job, and they know the library is very important to him.”
The odyssey of the gun began on Dec. 13, 2003, when Mr. Hussein was discovered in the 8-foot-deep hole on a farm near Tikrit. Delta Force soldiers did not see the gun at first, said Steve Russell, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who helped lead the mission and is now a Oklahoma state senator.
Mr. Russell said Mr. Hussein had been crouched on all fours, the gun on the floor. The soldiers kept the rare pistol, which can fire bullets automatically, with two AK-47s found in the farmhouse, he said.
In early 2004, one of the soldiers came up with the idea of presenting the gun to Mr. Bush. On March 1 that year, the Delta Force men surprised the president with the pistol at an Oval Office meeting.
“That was a great day,” Mr. Bush told the Pentagon Channel in December. “I’ve had a lot of beautiful days in office; some not so happy. But my best days have come when certain milestones have been reached, and I love to share those milestones and those days with the people who actually made them happen.”