By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - Former President George W. Bush will step back into the spotlight on Thursday to dedicate his presidential library, along with President Barack Obama and former U.S. presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.
The dedication will be the first meeting of the five living presidents since January 2009. First Lady Michelle Obama, former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former First Lady Barbara Bush, wife of George H.W. Bush and mother of George W. Bush, are expected to attend.
The 43rd president of the United States, Republican Bush left office during the Great Recession and has mostly kept out of the public eye since Democrat Obama's inauguration in January 2009.
The George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University has been designed to examine the issues of George W. Bush's presidency, including the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States and the subsequent invasion of Iraq.
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showed that 44 percent of Americans surveyed view Bush negatively compared to 35 percent who think favorably of him. But an expert on presidential history thinks the library and museum could help alter any negative perception.
"When presidents leave the White House, they have the opportunity to burnish their legacies and continue the good work they started while in the White House without the pressure of politics and dealing with the problems of the nation and the world," said Mark K. Updegrove, director of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas.
"Presidents retain the influence to make a difference, and for Bush that could be in Africa where his policies have done more to help that continent than anyone else's," said Updegrove, an author of books on presidential history.
One of Bush's accomplishments was a program launched in 2003 to combat the spread of AIDS in Africa, through which millions of HIV-infected people received drugs to keep them from getting the disease.
While Bush has not been as active as Clinton or Carter after their presidencies, he has begun efforts to influence debates through his institute, a public policy center established in 2009.
The Bush library is the 13th presidential library in the United States and the third in Texas, the most of any state. The George Bush Presidential Library and Museum is at Texas A&M University in College Station.
The Bush Presidential Center holds 70 million pages of paper records, 43,000 artifacts, 200 million emails and 4 million digital photographs. It has the largest collection of digital records of any presidential library.
The George W. Bush Foundation raised about $250 million for the center, which will become part of the National Archives and Records Administration at the dedication.
Bush was closely involved in planning the center and insisted on an objective presentation of the most controversial issues of his presidency, according to Mark Langdale, president of the George W. Bush Foundation. These include the response to Hurricane Katrina and the financial crisis.
"He is not trying to defend his record here," Langdale said. "It is very straightforward. He lays out the decisions he made and explains why he made them."
Since leaving Washington, Bush, 66, has lived in Dallas, devoting his time to family, planning his presidential center and promoting causes through his institute. He has returned to playing golf, mountain biking and painting, Langdale said.
He said some of Bush's artwork may be displayed at the center, which is scheduled to open to the public on May 1.
(Reporting by Marice Richter; Editing by Greg McCune)