Mistakes, I’ve Made a Few, Bush Says at Final News Conference
WASHINGTON — President Bush held what he called “the ultimate exit interview” on Monday, using the final news conference of his presidency to dispute the idea that the nation’s “moral standing has been damaged” by his actions and to warn President-elect Barack Obama that, despite the turbulence in the economy, his most urgent priority must be fighting “an enemy that would like to attack America and Americans again.”
Looking back over the long arc of his turbulent presidency, Mr. Bush was by turns impassioned and defiant, reflective and light-hearted, even as he conceded that some things “didn’t go according to plan.” He confessed a litany of mistakes, refused to talk about pardons, cautioned the Republican Party to be inclusive and wondered aloud what it would feel like to make coffee for his wife, Laura, at their ranch in Crawford, Tex., on the morning after Mr. Obama takes his place.
He showed flashes of the humor that helped elect him, as when he said — without offering specifics — that he intended to get busy quickly after leaving office.
“I just can’t envision myself, you know, with a big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, sitting on some beach,” the president said, adding, “particularly since I quit drinking.”
But the most striking moment of the 47-minute question-and-answer session, by far, was Mr. Bush’s rousing defense of his record on fighting terrorism. With human rights advocates accusing his White House of condoning torture and demanding an inquiry into its counterterrorism tactics, the departing president used his platform to admonish reporters, and by extension, his successor and the nation, not to forget the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, and the climate of fear in which his policies were forged.
“All these debates will matter not if there is another attack on the homeland,” he said, his voice rising as he leaned over the lectern for effect.
“You remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here?” he demanded, adding: “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.”
Mr. Bush would not address the possibility, widely debated in legal and political circles, that he might issue so-called pre-emptive pardons to counterterrorism agents or administration officials who could face criminal prosecution for a range of activities, including harsh interrogation techniques like waterboarding or the firing of United States attorneys.
“I won’t be discussing pardons here,” he said, cutting off the question. It was the only question he refused to answer.
The last time Mr. Bush took questions from reporters was in Baghdad, where an Iraqi journalist made international headlines by throwing a shoe at him.
The news conference on Monday featured only questions, no shoes, and it will not be the final word from the president. The White House said Mr. Bush would deliver a farewell address on Thursday night on the “greatest challenges facing the country and what it will take to meet them” — a parting shot, in a sense, from a leader who is well aware that historians will debate his policies for decades.
Mr. Bush said he was not certain why he had become so divisive. “I don’t know why they get angry,” he replied to a question about those who disagreed with his policies so vehemently that it became personal. “I don’t know why they get hostile.” He added that he had learned not to pay attention.
“I don’t see how I can get back home in Texas and look in the mirror and be proud of what I see, if I allowed the loud voices, the loud critics to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary to protect this country,” Mr. Bush said.
It has been nearly eight years since Mr. Bush arrived in Washington vowing to be “a uniter, not a divider,” with the idea that his presidency would focus on domestic issues like education, Social Security and immigration reform.
He leaves behind two unfinished wars and an economy in turmoil, and the wear and tear of the office shows. At 62, he is grayer and a bit more wrinkled now. Yet Mr. Bush said that he had “never felt isolated” during his time in office, and dismissed the idea of the presidency as a burden.
“Even in the darkest moments of Iraq,” the president said, he and his staff found that there were times “when we could be light-hearted and support each other.”
Mr. Bush began Monday’s news conference by thanking the reporters who covered him, although the relationship has often been tense. He fielded a variety of questions, including whether he would ask Congress to release $350 billion in bailout money — he later did so, at the request of Mr. Obama — and why his efforts to bring about a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians had failed.
“I know we have advanced the process,” he said.
Mr. Bush has repeatedly said that he believes history will be the judge of his presidency, and while he said so again on Monday, he did deliver his own assessment. Four years ago, he was asked if he had made any mistakes during his presidency, and struggled to come up with an answer, a moment that came to define him as unwilling to engage in critical self-analysis.
“Clearly, putting a ‘Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” Mr. Bush began, referring to the banner displayed during his shipboard speech in May 2003 declaring that major combat operations in Iraq had ended. “It sent the wrong message,” he said, adding, “Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.” Mr. Bush said he had “thought long and hard” about Hurricane Katrina, which had become an iconic low point of his years in office. But he did not say what might have been done differently.
He also said, for the first time, that he believed he should have pressed immigration reform — he had come to office calling it his first priority — instead of calling for an overhaul of Social Security after the 2004 election.
He predicted Republicans would make a comeback but said he was “concerned that in the wake of the defeat that the temptation will be to look inward.”
Looking ahead, Mr. Bush has said he intends to write a book and to work on his library and public policy institute at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
One thing he does not intend to do, he said Monday, is make news.
“When I get out of here, I’m getting off the stage,” Mr. Bush said, adding, “I’ve had my time in the klieg lights.”
SOURCE: The NY Times, 13bush.html?_r=1&hp