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Bush defends legacy in final press conference

The president, in what he calls 'the ultimate exit interview,' acknowledges some mistakes in action and rhetoric but maintains that he made the difficult choices necessary to defend the nation.

January 13, 2009|Mark Silva

WASHINGTON — By offering a wistful and introspective closing argument to the American people who elected him twice but then lost confidence in him, retiring President George W. Bush is attempting to write the first draft of his own history.

First came a sober public confession of mistakes and disappointments in his final news conference Monday -- a remarkably personal moment for a president never prone to self-examination or questioning under the klieg lights. He also offered a robust defense of his administration, including its response to Hurricane Katrina, and a defiant insistence that he waged a necessary war in Iraq and should not be judged too quickly for it.

On Thursday he is to make a prime-time address from the White House, which Bush's spokeswoman said was planned to "reflect on his time in office and the ways our country has changed these past eight years."

But that televised farewell from the East Room is unlikely to echo the list of mistakes Bush acknowledged to reporters in the West Wing on Monday: prematurely declaring "mission accomplished" in Iraq; failing to find the weapons of mass destruction cited as the reason for the Iraq war; the abuse of Iraqi prisoners; and his own campaigning for Social Security reform after reelection instead of trying to change immigration policy.

And he expressed regret for talking, sometimes, like a cowboy -- "mission accomplished" being a prime example.

Bush seemed to make peace with fate.

"I believe this -- the phrase 'burdens of the office' is overstated," Bush said. "You know, it's kind of like, 'Why me? . . . Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?' It's just . . . it's pathetic, isn't it, self pity."

He alluded to the dire advice he received from his economic advisors and to some of his friends' objections to his solutions:

"I chunked aside some of my free market principles when I was told . . . that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression."

Bush said that he's told those friends:

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

Bush argued that a fair view of his administration would emerge only over time. "There is no such thing as short-term history," he said. "I don't think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration till time has passed."

Current views of the president, in fact, remain harsh. For more than 2 1/2 years, more Americans have disapproved of his job performance than approved of it, according to the Gallup Poll.

The news conference capped a string of interviews in which Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney defended the administration's record -- part of an orchestrated effort in an outgoing president's final days to salvage his battered legacy.

The White House website features several documents enumerating the administration's accomplishments, such as preventing additional terrorist attacks, advancing missile defense and fighting AIDS in Africa.

Bush "just thinks he's getting a bad rap, and he's also determined to put his side of the story on the record," said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor who has followed Bush since his early days in politics. "He is a guy who prizes being liked, even though he would never admit it."

Buchanan and Princeton University presidential scholar Fred Greenstein suggested that Bush's unusual remarks might have been inspired by the poll numbers and policy failures the retiring president faces.

"The remarks today were not characteristic of what we have seen of Bush over the past eight years," Greenstein said. "There was no swagger. . . . There was a more reflective, more chastened feeling to it."

Buchanan said he could think of no other president who granted so many interviews and sought so much television time in his waning days.

"His group has clearly concluded that things are so bad, they have to respond," he said.

But despite Bush's sinking public approval ratings -- less than 30% in the most recent Gallup Poll, down from a high of 90% after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- he said he never felt isolated in office.

"In times of war, people get emotional. I understand that," Bush said, insisting he "never really, you know, spent that much time, frankly, worrying about the loud voices."

In retrospect, he said, some of his choices were wrong.

"History will look back and determine that which could have been done better," said Bush, volunteering his own review:

"Clearly, putting a 'mission accomplished' on [an] aircraft carrier was a mistake," he said, referring to the banner strung across the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, where he landed several weeks after the invasion of Iraq to declare that major combat operations were finished.

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