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Bush's final press conference, laments

Monday, January 12, 2009

by Mark Silva and updated
posted in

A retiring President George W. Bush, delivering the final and most introspective press conference of his long presidency, acknowledged today the several "mistakes" and "disappointments'' of his tumultuous two terms in the Oval Office, yet voiced a defiant insistence that he made the choices necessary to defend the nation from threats that still persist today.
"This is the ultimate exit interview,'' said Bush, who summoned reporters last-minute to his 47th and final press show.
Bush, also acknowledging "the historic moment'' of the swearing-in of his successor, President-elect Barack Obama, next week as a signal of how far the nation has come in race relations, lavished the Democrat with best wishes and a prediction that he will find strength in the office from a loving family "a 45-second commute'' away from the Oval Office..
"I consider myself fortunate to have a front-row seat for what is going to be a historic moment,'' said Bush, who will hand off the presidency to Obama on Jan. 20. ""President-elect Obama's election does speak volumes about how far this country has come.''
And Bush, insisting that there can only be one leader "in the Klieg lights at one time,'' said that he will leave any eleventh-hour decisions this week on coping with the nation's economic crisis to his successor - refraining from acting on the second half of a $700-billion financial institution bailout that he hastily won from Congress at his term's end unless Obama asks him to act on it. (After the press conference, Obama indeed called on Bush to release the second $350 billion, and the president agreed.)
The 43rd president, who will leave office with Obama's inauguration eight days from today and has endured years of criticism from the media, also opened this final session in the West Wing of the White House with praise for the working press.
"We have been through a lot together,'' Bush told his audience. "Through it all, I have respected you. Sometimes I didn't like the stories you wrote...'' And, then, with a self-effacing joke about his own occasional lapses in diction, the president told his audience: "Sometimes I felt you mis-underestimated me.''

Asked about the $350-billion second half of a financial bailout that the Treasury Department still holds, and which the Congress must approve, Bush said, "I have talked to the president-elect... I told him if he felt he needed the 350, I would be happy to ask for it... He hasn't asked me to make the request, yet and I don't intend to make the request unless he specifically asks for it.''
Asked about his many and most strident critics, Bush said, "You know, most people I see when I move around the country, they're not angry, they're not hostile... They're civil... (Among the others, he said: "I don't know why they get angry. I don't know why they get hostile.... Presidents can try to avoid hard decisions and therefore avoid controversy... That's just not my nature.
"In times, of war, people get emotional,'' Bush said. "I've never spent a lot of time listening to the loud voices.''
And with this, the president's own voice rose, as he stated with some defiance: It would be wrong, he said, "if I allowed the loud voices to prevent me from doing what is necessary to protect this country.''
Bush, who gradually has confronted some of his regrets during a series of interviews in his final months in office, offered his own full accounting at this press conference.
"History will look back,'' said Bush.
"Clearly, putting 'Mission Accomplished' on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,'' he said of the banner draped across the carrier in the Pacific where he landed in a fighter jet weeks after the invasion of Iraq to declare major military action completed.
"Obviously some of my rhetoric was a mistake,'' said Bush, who previously has voiced regret over threatening to find Osama bin Laden "dead or alive'' or declaring of the nation's enemies: "Bring it On.'' He did not mention bin Laden, the still elusive al Qaeda leader and sponsor of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on this day, however.
"I thought about Hurricane Katrina,'' Bush said. "Could I have done something different?'' Such as landing Air Force One at Baton Rouge, La., instead of making the low fly-over above New Orleans that he did with the presidential aircraft days after the storm deluged the Gulf Coast, But then, he said, people would have criticized him for distracting law enforcement in the region at a critical time with the landing of the president's jet.
"People say the federal response was slow,'' he complained. "Don't tell me the federal response was slow when 30,000 people were pulled off the roofs by helicopters'' after the flood.
"Running the Social Security (reform) right after the elections was a mistake,'' allowed Bush, who campaigned for his failing reforms in the months after his reelection. "I should have argued for immigration reform.''
"There have been disappointments,''the president said. "Abu Graib (the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners in Iraq) was a huge disappointment.... Not having weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq) was a disappointment.''
But, asked about the standing of the U.S. in the eyes of the world faltering as a result of his actions, he said, "I strongly disagree that our moral standing has been (diminished.'''
There are few who can understand what the presidency is like, the president said - they met for lunch at the White House last week. They included his father, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, who all welcomed Obama to the Oval Office and then lunch.
"President Obama is fixin' to do that,'' Bush said.
"He'll walk in the Oval Office,'' Bush said. "And there will be a moment where the responsibilities of the president will land squarely on his shoulders.... I wish him all the very best.''
"He will feel the effects the moment he enters the Oval Office,'' said Bush, who conceded that the first thing he worried about was his speech. "He's a better speechwriter than me.''
Bush maintained that he will step aside for his successor.
"When I get out of here, I'm getting off the stage,'' said Bush, who has served since January 2001. "I believe there ought to be one person in the Klieg lights at a time...''
"I have never felt isolated,'' Bush said, "and I don't think he will. Obama's loving family will prevent the next president from feeling any isolation in the job, said Bush, a father of two grown twin daughters. "He's a 45-second commute away from a great wife and daughters who love him dearly...
"The job is so exciting and so profound that the disappointments will be a minor irritant,'' Bush said.
Asked about what people might conclude about his own execution of the biggest moments of his presidency, Bush spoke of the war in Iraq: "Hard things don't happen overnight...
"In terms of the economy, I inherited a recession. I'm ending on a recession,'' he said. "In the meantime, there were 52 months of job growth....'' He defended the two rounds of tax cuts that he won during his first term, and acknowledged that, at the end of his second term, he "chucked aside some of my free-market principles'' in pushing for a massive infusion of federal money into a stumbling financial market. The bailout, he maintained, has helped "ease the credit crunch'' that threatened a disaster.
On the failure to secure peace in the Middle East, Bush said, "I'm for a sustainable cease-fire.... We believe that the best way to ensure there is a cease-fire is to work with Egypt to stop the smuggling of arms into Gaza... Why haven't we achieved peace?. That's a good question... It's a long time since they've had peace in the Middle East... people are always willing to murder to stop the advance of freedom.... Will this ever happen? I think it will.. and I think we have advanced the process.''
The president, who has granted few pardons during his terms, was asked if he might consider pre-emptive pardons for members of his administration who engaged in questionable interrogation practices or, say, were involved in the disputed firings of several U.S. attorneys. "I won't be discussing pardons here at this press conference,'' said Bush, refusing to elaborate.
Bush joked with reporters, suggesting to CNN's Suzanne Malveaux that people used to call her Susanne, and now it's Su-zahn - "I finally got your name right.''.When he told another reporter that covering Obama will be "a cool job,'' and the reporter replied that it's not as cool as Bush's job, the president quickly replied: "What, retirement?''
While suggesting that he will step out of the limelight in retirement, Bush did allow that his "Type-A personality'' may make that difficult. "I just can't envision myself, you know, the big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach,'' said Bush, adding a voluble aside at the end of the remark -- "particularly since I quit drinking.''
Suggesting that he had never been able to escape the presidency, not when on vacation at his Crawford, Texas, ranch, with his wife Laura, and not when he "tried as hard" as he could to forget things while mountain-biking, he made this prediction about retirement:
"I'll wake up in Crawford on Wednesday morning... I expect I'll make Laura coffee.''


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