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Bush Looks Back on Presidency in Final Press Conference

January 12, 2009 at 6:10 PM EDT
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In what he called "the ultimate exit interview," President George W. Bush gave his final press conference Monday, admitting to some mistakes while defending the bulk of his decisions on domestic, economic, and foreign policy.
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JIM LEHRER: One last presidential news conference. Here is an extended portion of President Bush’s final question-and-answer session today at the White House.

QUESTION: Without getting into your motives or your goals, I think a lot of people, including Republicans, including some members of your own administration, have been disappointed at the execution of some of your ideals, whether Iraq or Katrina or the economy.

What would your closing message be to the American people about the execution of these goals?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Well, first of all, hard things don’t happen overnight, Jake. And when the history of Iraq is written, historians will analyze, for example, the decision on the surge.

The situation was — looked like it was going fine, and then violence for a period of time began to throw — throw the progress of Iraq into doubt.

And rather than accepting the status quo and saying, “Oh, it’s not worth it,” or “The politics makes it difficult,” or, you know, “The party may end up being — you know, not doing well in the elections because of the violence in Iraq,” I decided to do something about it and sent 30,000 troops in as opposed to withdrawing.

And so that part of history is certain, and the situation did change.

Now the question is, in the long-run, will this democracy survive? And that’s going to be the challenge for future presidents.

In terms of the economy — look, I inherited a recession, I’m ending on a recession. In the meantime, there were 52 months of uninterrupted job growth. And I defended tax cuts when I campaigned, I helped implement tax cuts when I was president, and I will defend them after my presidency as the right course of action.

And I readily concede I chucked aside some of my free market principles when I was told by chief economic advisers that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.

So I have told some of my friends who’ve said — you know, who have taken an ideological position on this issue, you know, “Why’d you do what you did?”

I said, “Well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act, too,” which I did.

Considering past mistakes

QUESTION: Four years ago, you were asked if you had made any mistakes.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes.

QUESTION: And I'm not trying to play "gotcha," but I wonder, when you look back over the long arc of your presidency, do you think in retrospect that you have made any mistakes? And, if so, why is the single biggest mistake that you may have made?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Gotcha.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Look, I have often said that history will look back and determine that which could have been done better or, you know, mistakes I made.

Clearly, putting a "mission accomplished" on an aircraft carrier was a mistake. It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but, nevertheless, it conveyed a different message.

Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.

I have thought long and hard about Katrina; you know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge.

I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake. I should have -- should have argued for immigration reform.

There have been disappointments.

Abu Ghraib, obviously, was a huge disappointment, during the presidency.

You know, not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment.

I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way.

America's moral standing

QUESTION: Many of the allies of the new president -- I believe the president-elect, himself, has talked about how damaged -- that Gitmo, that harsh interrogation tactics that they consider torture, how going to war in Iraq without a U.N. mandate have damaged America's moral standing in the world.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes.

QUESTION: I'm wondering, basically, what is your reaction to that? You think that is something that America -- that the next president needs to work on?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged.

It may be damaged amongst some of the elite. But people still understand America stands for freedom; that America is a country that provides such great hope.

You go to Africa. You ask Africans about American's generosity and compassion. Go to India and ask about, you know, America's -- their view of America. Go to China and ask.

No questions, parts of Europe have said that we shouldn't have gone to war in Iraq without a mandate, but those are few countries.

And I understand -- Gitmo has created controversies, but when it came time for those countries that were criticizing America to take some of those -- some of those detainees, they weren't willing to help out.

And, so, you know, I just disagree with the assessment.

I remind -- I listened, I have told people, "Yes, you can try to be popular." In certain quarters in Europe, you can be popular by blaming every Middle Eastern problem on Israel. Or you can be popular by joining the International Criminal Court. I guess I could have been popular by accepting Kyoto, which I felt was a flawed treaty, and proposed something different and more constructive.

And in terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity. What I would worry about is the Constitution of the United States and putting plans in place that makes it easier to find out what the enemy is thinking.

Because all these debates will matter naught if there's another attack on the homeland. The question won't be, you know, "Were you critical of this plan or not?" The question's going to be, "Why didn't you do something?"

Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here? In press conferences, in opinion pieces and in stories that sometimes were news stories and sometimes opinion pieces, people were saying, "How come they didn't see it? How come they didn't connect the dots?"

Do you remember what the environment was like in Washington -- I do -- when people were hauled in front of Congress and members of Congress were asking questions about, "How come you didn't know this that or the other?"

And then we start putting, you know, policy in place -- legal policy in place to connect the dots, and all of a sudden, people were saying, "How come you're connecting the dots?"

And -- so, you know, I have heard all that. I have heard all that.

My view is, is that most people around the world, they respect America. And some of them don't like me -- I understand that -- some of the writers and the, you know, opiners and all that. That's fine. That's part of the deal.

But I'm more concerned about the country and -- and how people view the United States of America. They view us as strong, compassionate people who care deeply about the universality of freedom.

The burdens of the office

QUESTION: Mr. President, you spoke of the moment that the responsibility of the office would hit Barack Obama.

The world's a far different place than it was when it hit you. When do you think he's going to feel the full impact?

And what, if anything, have you and the other presidents shared with him about the effects of the sometimes isolation, the so-called bubble of the office?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. That's a great question.

He'll -- I -- he will feel the effects the minute he walks in the Oval Office.

At least that's when I felt it. I don't know when he's going to -- he may feel it the minute he gets sworn in. And the minute I got sworn in, I was started thinking about the speech.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: And so -- but he's a better speechmaker than me, so he'll be able to -- he'll be able to -- I don't know how he's going to feel.

All I know is he's going to feel it. There will be a moment when he feels it.

I have never felt isolated, and I don't think he will.

One reason he won't feel isolated is that he's got a fabulous family and he cares a lot about his family. That's evident from my discussions with him.

He is a 45-second commute away from a great wife and two little girls that love him dearly.

I believe the phrase "burdens of the office" is overstated. You know, it's, kind of, like, "Why me?"

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: "Oh, the burdens," you know. "Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?"

It's just pathetic, isn't it, self-pity?

And I don't believe that President-elect Obama will be full of self-pity.

He will find, you know, the people that don't like you, the critics, they're pretty predictable. Sometimes the biggest disappointments will come from your so-called friends.

And there will be disappointments, I promise you. He will be disappointed. On the other hand, the job is so exciting and so profound that the -- the disappointments will be clearly, you know, a minor irritant, compared to the...

QUESTION: So it was never the loneliest office in the world?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: No, not for me.

We had -- you know, people -- I had a fabulous team around me of highly dedicated, smart, capable people. And we had fun.

I tell people that, you know, some days happy, some days not so happy; every day has been joyous.