At Final News Conference, A Reflective Bush

With just eight days left in office, President Bush looked back over eight years in office and talked about his joys and disappointments in his final White House news conference. He also had words of encouragement for his successor, Barack Obama.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. First this hour, we're going to hear what President Bush had to say in an unusually personal press conference. The White House says it was the president's last official meeting with the Press Corps. He spent 45 minutes with reporters, at times relaxed and joking, and other moments firm and even angry. Mr. Bush defended decisions he's made over the past eight years, and he also laid out a list of regrets. NPR's Don Gonyea was there.

DON GONYEA: President Bush has never liked news conferences. He hasn't had one in the White House in nearly six months. But today, he did use a brief opening statement to thank the reporters who've covered him.

(Soundbite of President Bush's final news conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Sometimes I didn't like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you misunderestimated me. But always the relationship, I have felt, has been professional, and I appreciate it.

GONYEA: The questions that followed covered both current topics and the sweep of Mr. Bush's eight years in office. On the current front, he said he would release the remaining $350 billion in emergency funds for the economy if President-elect Obama asked him to do so - something that happened immediately after the news conference ended. It was yet another sign that in this area, the current president is already deferring to the man who'll oversee the spending of that money. And on the economy, despite the loss of two and a half million jobs this past year, Mr. Bush still found positive news to promote as part of his legacy.

(Soundbite of President Bush's final news conference)

President BUSH: 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.

GONYEA: The president was also asked about mistakes he has made. After years of refusing to acknowledge any, Mr. Bush has in recent interviews offered a few things he regrets. He repeated them today - the mission accomplished banner that hung above him on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln as he declared major combat operations to be over in Iraq. That was in May of 2003, and that was not all.

President BUSH: 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 that didn't go according to plan. Let's put it that way.

GONYEA: He also noted the response to Hurricane Katrina, but he got angry when he recalled how people say still that the federal response was slow. He pointed to 30,000 people rescued from rooftops as a counterargument.

Inevitably, the president turned to 9/11, saying his top priority and the top issue facing his successor was always to prevent another attack. Mr. Bush was asked to respond to accusations that in his so-called, War on Terror, the U.S. has lost moral standing.

(Soundbite of President Bush's final news conference)

President BUSH: I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged. It may be damaged among some of the elite, but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a - is a country that provides such great hope.

GONYEA: Asked about President-elect Obama, Mr. Bush said there will come a time shortly after taking the oath next Tuesday when Mr. Obama will suddenly feel the weight of the presidency on his shoulders. But he also said this…

(Soundbite of President Bush's final news conference)

President BUSH: I believe the phrase burdens of the office is overstated. You know, it's kind of like, why me? 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 President-elect Obama will be full of self pity.

GONYEA: The president also said he, too, is caught up in the historic nature of Obama's election, and said he's pleased that he'll have a front row seat when the nation's first African-American president takes the oath. Then, the president said he'll be happy to step out of the public eye while the klieg lights find a new subject. Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Bush Reflects On Legacy As Term Nears End

President Bush reflected on his eight years in office on Monday before the journalists who have written the first draft of history on his administration, outlining his successes and failures in a tone at once conciliatory and defensive.

In what was scheduled to be his last news conference, Bush maintained a casual, often joking, rapport with the media that has been a hallmark of his presidency. He kicked off the session by thanking journalists and making a reference to one of his most famous malapropisms, saying the reporters gathered had "sometimes 'misunderestimated' me."

Bush talked specifics about his last week in office, saying he would ask Congress to release the second $350 billion payment of bailout money if President-elect Obama wanted 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," Bush said. (After the news conference, White House press secretary Dana Perino said Obama had made a request for the money and Bush had in turn asked Congress.)

The 43rd president said he had spoken to his successor three times since the election and found Obama "a very smart and engaging guy."

But Bush spent much of the news conference on his legacy after eight years in the White House and the job that he described as "fabulous" despite his low public approval ratings.

Mistakes? He named several, but he preferred to characterize others as merely "disappointments."

"Clearly, putting 'Mission Accomplished' on an aircraft carrier was a mistake," he said of his now-infamous speech May 1, 2003, aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, in which he declared the end of combat operations in Iraq. More than five years later, the war continues.

He also conceded that "some of my rhetoric has been a mistake" and that in Iraq, finding "no weapons of mass destruction" was a disappointment.

The president said he had thought long and hard about his handling in 2005 of Hurricane Katrina but couldn't decide if things might have been done differently. He also wished he had chosen to push an overhaul of immigration laws rather than Social Security in the days after the 2004 congressional elections.

On the goal in his final year in office to accomplish the herculean task of forging a Middle East peace: "The challenge of course is always complicated by the fact that people are willing to murder to stop the advance of freedom.

"One thing about the presidency is that you can only make decisions on the information at hand," Bush said.

The president, at times raising his voice, also vigorously defended many of his administration's decisions.

With the Iraq war, "rather than accepting a status quo," he implemented the so-called surge, he said. "I decided to do something about it by sending 30,000 troops instead of withdrawing."

Bush also discussed the economy, noting, "I inherited a recession and I am ending on a recession." He was referring to the short 2001 downturn as well as current economic woes.

"The question facing a president is not when the problem started but what did you do about it when you recognized the problem?" he said. "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."

Still, Bush said he believed the "burdens of the office" were overstated.

"You know, it's kind of like, 'Why me? 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 wished Obama success.

"I'm getting off the stage," Bush said.

"I believe that it ought to be, you know, one person in the klieg lights at a time. I've had my time in the klieg lights."

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: