By Steve Holland
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama and his two immediate predecessors, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, will all travel to South Africa to attend memorial events for Nelson Mandela, the former South African leader who died on Thursday.
Obama and his wife, Michelle, will be joined on Air Force One by Bush and his wife, Laura, on the trip to South Africa next week.
Clinton, the Democrat who preceded the Republican Bush in office, will be attending Mandela events in South Africa as well, a spokesman said. His exact travel plans were still being worked out.
It is a sign of Mandela's importance as a world leader that the United States will be represented in South Africa by three American presidents.
There has been an outpouring of tributes from Americans to the 95-year-old Mandela, whose battle against white minority rule in South Africa was followed closely in the United States and helped fuel Obama's interest in politics.
The exact schedules of Obama, Bush and Clinton were as yet unclear and it was not known whether Obama would make public remarks in South Africa.
"President Obama and the first lady will go to South Africa next week to pay their respects to the memory of Nelson Mandela and to participate in memorial events. We'll have further updates on timing and logistics as they become available," White House spokesman Jay Carney said in a statement.
Bush spokesman Freddy Ford said Bush and his wife would travel with the Obamas.
"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," Ford said.
Bush has made Africa a central focus since leaving the White House. He met with Obama in Tanzania last July and they stood side by side to commemorate the victims of the 1998 al Qaeda bombing of the U.S. Embassy there.
Meetings among American presidents are rare. Obama, Clinton and former Presidents Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush were all in Dallas earlier this year for the opening of George W. Bush's presidential library.
George H.W. Bush, 89, will not be going to South Africa, his spokesman said.
Obama, speaking on Thursday night shortly after Mandela's death at age 95 was announced, said he was one of the "countless millions who drew inspiration from Nelson Mandela's life."
Obama, America's first black president, also said the first political action he took as a young man was attending a protest against apartheid.
Carney said at his daily news briefing that Obama and Mandela last spoke in 2010 or 2011 and also spoke when Obama was first elected president in 2008.
Clinton told CNN he once asked Mandela how he managed to emerge from prison in the proper frame of mind to become his country's president.
"He said, I was breaking rocks about 11 years into my prison term and I realized they had already taken so much from me. I had been physically and mentally abused. I had been deprived of seeing my children grow up. It ultimately destroyed my marriage.
"He said, 'I realized they could take every single thing away from me except my mind and my heart. Those things I would have to give them. And I decided not to give them away."
(Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Steve Holland; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Peter Cooney)