WASHINGTON — Former President George W. Bush will join President Barack Obama on a trip to South Africa to attend a memorial for Nelson Mandela. Former President Bill Clinton will also fly to the country, but details on his travel plans have not been released.
“President and Mrs. George W. Bush have gratefully accepted the President and Mrs. Obama’s invitation to accompany them to South Africa on Air Force One and attend President Nelson Mandela’s memorial services next week,” Bush spokesman Freddy Ford said.
An earlier version of this story stated that Clinton would be traveling with Obama. However, it was only confirmed that Clinton is going to South Africa, not whether he is traveling with the current President.
A spokesman for former President George H. W. Bush said he is not attending the Mandela memorial, citing the traveling distance and the former president’s advanced age. He is 89.
George W. Bush and Bill Clinton met with Mandela multiple times in the past two decades.
While George W. Bush and Mandela disagreed on the Iraq War, they were both passionate advocates for combating AIDS in Africa.
“Sometimes, there are leaders who come and go. His legacy will last for a long time,” Bush said.
Reminded by Curnow that Mandela had criticized him publicly about the war in Iraq, Bush said he didn’t bear a grudge.
“He wasn’t the only guy,” he said. “It’s OK. I made decisions that were the right decisions. History will ultimately judge. I never held someone’s opinion against him; I didn’t look at him differently because he didn’t agree with me on an issue.”
While he was in office, Bush set up a plan that dramatically reduced the number of AIDS deaths in Africa. Mandela was also active on that front, as the disease killed his son at the age of 55.
Mandela, who became South Africa’s first elected black president in 1994 and did not seek re-election in 1999, visited the White House at least twice during Bush’s tenure–in 2001 and 2005.
Upon learning of his death Thursday, Bush issued a statement saying Mandela was “one of the great forces for freedom and equality of our time.”
“He bore his burdens with dignity and grace, and our world is better off because of his example,” Bush continued. “This good man will be missed, but his contributions will live on forever. Laura and I send our heartfelt sympathy to President Mandela’s family and to the citizens of the nation he loved.”
For his part, Clinton has had a long relationship with Mandela that spans to shortly after the time Mandela was released from prison.
Clinton said Friday that he and the revered statesman had a “genuine friendship” that began in 1992 at the Democratic National Convention in New York.
“I was about to be nominated for president. And former Mayor David Dinkins, who was a longtime supporter of Mandela’s brought him up to our rooms, which is where he met with Hillary and Chelsea and me,” Clinton recalled.
“We hit it off right away.”
Mandela later came to Clinton’s inauguration in 1993, and then-first lady Hillary Clinton and then-Vice President Al Gore also led a delegation at Mandela’s inauguration in 1994.
Clinton said the two worked together throughout the South African leader’s presidency, which ended in 1999. He later noted that he would visit South Africa every year around Mandela’s birthday and has been to the country around “nine or 10 times” since leaving office.
Despite their closeness, Clinton and Mandela occasionally diverged on diplomatic issues, like Cuba. Mandela “had a fierce loyalty” to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and anyone who supported him during his time in captivity.
Both Clinton and his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, met with Mandela in his final years. Hillary last visited him at his home in South Africa in August 2012, while Bill and Chelsea visited him a month prior.
Obama spoke by phone with Graça Machel, Mandela’s wife, Friday to express condolences, gratitude and “thanks for the joy that Graça Machel brought to Nelson Mandela’s life, and the commitment to a peaceful, fair, and loving world that she and President Mandela shared,” according to the White House.
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