(Photo: George W. Bush Presidential Center)
By Judy Keen, USA TODAY
Former president George W. Bush says his new presidential library is "a place to lay out facts," not a forum to explain policies such as the war with Iraq or his administration's handling of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.
"There's no need to defend myself," Bush said in a phone interview with USA TODAY. "I did what I did and ultimately history will judge."
After keeping a low profile since leaving office in 2009, Bush is returning to the spotlight for Thursday's dedication of the George W. Bush Presidential Center in Dallas.
He will be joined by President Obama and former presidents George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. The center on the campus of Southern Methodist University includes a library, museum and the George W. Bush Institute, a public policy center.
The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks are featured prominently in the museum, Bush says. "It's apparent that time is quickly dimming our memories" of that event, he says, "yet the lessons of 9/11 are as profound today as they were then." Among those lessons, he says: "Evil exists still in the form of people who murder innocent people to advance a point of view."
The Iraq War, the 2007 troop surge there, the 2008 financial meltdown and the response to Katrina in 2005 are featured in an interactive exhibit called "decision points theater" where visitors can assess "the decisions that I had to make and the recommendations I received," he says.
When people try to debate him on decisions he made while in office, Bush says, he suggests that they read his 2010 memoir, Decision Points. "Get a sense of what I did and if you still disagree, I understand," he says he tells them.
Bush's approval rating in January 2009 as he left office was 34%; it peaked at 90% in the Gallup Poll just after the 9/11 attacks. A CNN/ORC International poll conducted in May 2012 found that 43% had a favorable view of Bush. The same poll gave Clinton a 66% approval rating and the senior Bush 59%.
He follows politics but isn't obsessed, Bush says, and he's "content" that he has stuck with his pledge to avoid comment on Obama's policies. He did not attend last year's Republican National Convention.
"It's refreshing and liberating," Bush says, to work on issues such as education, the economy, veterans, women's health and the democracy movement without worrying about politics.
The former president and his wife, Laura, visited Africa last year to help refurbish a clinic for Zambian women. "It was a joyous moment," Bush says, and he even enjoyed being "on the short end of a paint brush for three or four days."
The institute also is studying ways to recruit and hire skilled school principals; developing a curriculum based on "voices of freedom," including the stories of escapees from North Korean prison camps and world leaders such as the late Czech dissident and president Vaclav Havel; bringing Egyptian women to the United States to develop their leadership skills.
In the 30-minute interview Bush also said:
He is "truly" happy to be largely out of the limelight.
"Some people get confused about my desire not to have the klieg lights shining on me, but eight years is plenty to be in the lights," he says.
His father is "doing a lot better" after being gravely ill last winter. "His will to live is strong," Bush says.
It was "a special feeling" to welcome his first grandchild this month when his daughter Jenna Bush Hager gave birth to daughter Mila.