Still, members of Bush’s team recognize the significance of the moment and are prepared to take on some of his critics, if necessary, amid the glare of media attention this week. “Clearly some pretty significant distortions have been fostered by the current president and others,” Hughes said. “Those of us who worked for him see it [the dedication ceremony] as an opportunity to set the record straight in some cases.”
Bush advisers believe that over time, more attention will focus on aspects of his presidency that were overshadowed by the controversies of his national security and economic records. They point to his initiative to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, which has helped save hundreds of thousands of lives; his efforts to bring accountability and higher standards to public education; and his advocacy for comprehensive immigration reform, which was rejected by his party.
Bush’s decision to stay out of the public arena in recent years reflects his humility and his belief that he owed his successor “a decent interval of silence,” as Rove called it. He played no role in the 2012 campaign, neither attending the Republican National Convention last summer nor campaigning for Mitt Romney last fall. But there was no clamor among the Republican candidates for his participation.
Instead, Bush has quietly pursued activities that grew out of his presidential agenda. Much of that work, focusing on global health, the role of women in the Middle East, education and the economy, is carried out through the Bush Institute, which was founded in 2009 and shares the 23-acre site at SMU with the presidential library and museum.
The institute and the new museum are designed to highlight the values and principles that guided Bush in office. “Freedom is really the one central axis around which everything revolves,” said Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation.
Bush and former first lady Laura Bush have spent time in Africa on projects related to the AIDS initiative and other health issues. The former president also spends considerable time with wounded veterans and has participated with them in vigorous mountain-biking expeditions. He has taken up painting. He and his wife recently became grandparents for the first time.
He gave 70 speeches last year and plans 60 or so this year, according to Dan Bartlett, who was counselor to Bush in the White House. The paid speeches are all off the record, but one adviser said Bush is extremely candid in the question-and-answer sessions. He and former president Bill Clinton have done a series of joint appearances.