Not long ago he divided Americans as few others have, but since leaving office he has all but vanished from view. On Thursday, however, George W Bush takes his first steps on what might even be the road to rehabilitation, with a mini-blitz of television interviews and the dedication of his presidential library in Texas.
The ceremony to launch the $250m library, built on the grounds of Southern Methodist University in Dallas – his wife Laura’s alma mater – will be a rare reunion of arguably the world’s most exclusive club of living US presidents and former presidents, linked by a common experience that transcends party affiliation.
All five members will be present: Barack Obama, Bush father and son, Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter. So too will Tony Blair, whose unswerving support of the US during the Iraq war saw detractors dub him “Bush’s Poodle”.
Above all, however, the occasion marks the younger Bush’s re-emergence from the shadows. Most presidents maintain a low profile immediately after leaving office, if only to avoid muddying the waters for their successor. But the avoidance of the limelight by “43” has been near-total.
True, he did publish a virtually obligatory presidential memoir in 2010, entitled Decision Points. He now gives some 60 or 70 speeches a year, aides say. But these lucrative appearances, usually to sympathetic conservative or business audiences, have been off the record. He was considered so politically toxic by his party that he did not appear in person at the last two Republican nominating conventions.
Instead he has lived quietly in Dallas and at his Texas ranch, appearing in public only at the game of baseball’s Texas Rangers, of whom he was once managing partner, and – it recently emerged – dedicating himself to the contemplative hobby of painting. For a man known for impatience and fidgetiness, it is an improbable pastime.
All this, however, is about to change, as the George W Bush Presidential Library and Museum opens its doors, the 13th of the official such libraries under the aegis of the federal government, covering administrations dating back to Herbert Hoover. In fact Mr Bush’s is not just a museum and a library of his papers for scholars to consult, but a public policy centre too, in the shape of the George W Bush Institute, whose aims include promoting economic growth, education reform and freedom around the world.
The kick-off includes major network TV interviews by Mr Bush, some jointly with his wife, and a session with Parade, the biggest circulation magazine in the US with a claimed readership of 60 million. In it, Mr Bush was asked about a possible candidacy by his brother Jeb, and whether the country was ready for another Bush in the White House.
“That’s for Jeb to figure out,” he answered with trademark directness. “I would hope that people would judge [him]... on his merits and his track record... I hope he will run.”
Presidents tend to be looked on more kindly by history than during their time in office, and “43” is already no exception. A new Washington Post/ABC News poll puts his approval rating at 47 per cent, well up on the 33 per cent when he left Washington.
What’s in the library…
The dinners The library contains records of state events, including menus and papers from leaders’ visits to the White House and the Bush ranch in Crawford, Texas. Of the Blairs’ first trip in April 2002, Laura writes: “That spring, Cherie Blair got her wish, a visit to our ranch in Crawford. After dinner, Tony Blair borrowed a guitar and strummed and sang along with the San Antonio band Daddy Rabbit. During the day, we braved the pouring rain to drive across the rugged grounds in George’s pick-up.”
The disaster One of the biggest individual items on display in the 14,000 sq ft museum is a section of the rusted, twisted structure of the World Trade Centre, pictured right. The museum also contains the megaphone the President used to address rescuers when he visited Ground Zero on 14 September, with which he pledged that voices calling for justice from across America would be heard.
The disputed election One of the more controversial exhibits is a hanging chad, one of the partially spoilt ballot papers from the 2000 presidential election, pictured top right. The vote in Florida was so tight that disputed ballot papers, particularly those where the voter had not quite perforated the paper correctly, suddenly became hugely significant. The US Supreme Court handed Bush the keys to the White House after stopping a recount of votes, thereby securing his victory in the electoral college.
The decisions Criticised for his decision-making in office, a recent poll suggests America is now looking more favourably on the Bush legacy. An interactive exhibit allows visitors to put themselves in the President’s shoes, using the advice he was given to decide whether to invade Iraq, deploy federal forces to New Orleans after Katrina, and bail out Wall Street or let the banks fail.
… and what isn’t
The book There is plenty of poignant memorabilia from September 11, 2001, but no copy of The Pet Goat, the book being read to a class of children at the Emma E Booker school in Sarasota County, Florida, when Mr Bush was told of the attacks on the Twin Towers.
The paintings Mr Bush has become an avid painter since he left office and has a fondness for depicting dogs. Despite praise from his art teacher, none of his work will be on show in Dallas.
The cigars Laura Bush admits that her husband, like Barack Obama during his first term, was a smoker at the White House, preferring cigars to Mr Obama’s cigarettes. Again like Mr Obama, Mr Bush has reportedly given up.
The WMD evidence The Iraq section of the museum states that “no stockpiles of WMD were found”, along with the rejoinder: “Post-invasion inspections confirmed that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to resume production.”