President Bush have given his last news conference, bidding farewell to the journalists who have peppered him with questions over the past eight years. Unlike four years ago, he seemed prepared Monday to talk about what he sees as his biggest mistakes while in office.
MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, Host:
And I'm Melissa Block. With eight days until President-elect Barack Obama takes the oath of office, President Bush is saying his goodbyes. Today, it was farewell to the White House press corps.
President GEORGE W. BUSH (United States of America): As I looked to the room, I see Jake, Mike, Herman, Ann Compton. Just seemed like yesterday that I was on the campaign trail and you were analyzing my speeches and my policies.
BLOCK: They tried a bit more of that analysis at the president's final scheduled news conference.
Unidentified Man: I'm wondering if you plan to ask Congress for the remaining $350 billion...
Unidentified Woman: Do you believe that the Gaza conflict will have ended by the time you leave office?
Unidentified Man: Do you think the Republican Party needs to be more inclusive? Who needs to hear that message inside the Republican Party?
NORRIS: Mr. Bush took on some of those questions, but at turns, he was jovial, even a little punchy, calling on reporters by name one last time.
President BUSH: Yeah, Suzanne. I finally got your name right after...
Ms. SUZANNE MALVEAUX (Reporter, CNN, White House Correspondent): Yes.
President BUSH: ...how many years? Six years.
Ms. MALVEAUX: Eight years.
President BUSH: Eight years.
Ms. MALVEAUX: Thank you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
President BUSH: You used to be known as Susanne, now you're Suzanne.
Ms. MALVEAUX: Suzanne. Thank you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. MALVEAUX: Oh, you're...
President BUSH: I'm George.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NORRIS: President George Walker Bush's administration turned out to be one of the more closed administrations. One-on-one interviews were rare. Questions have gone unanswered.
BLOCK: Remember this exchange with reporter John Dickerson, then with Time magazine? This was April, 2004.
(Soundbite of Time magazine's interview with President George W. Bush, April, 2004)
Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Reporter, Time Magazine): In the last campaign, you were asked the question about the biggest mistake you've made in your life and you used to like to joke it was trading Sammy Sosa. You've looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made after 9/11. What would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?
President BUSH: Hmm. I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I can plan for it. Aah...
BLOCK: President Bush paused.
President BUSH: You know, I just - I'm sure something will pop in my head here in the midst of this press conference after all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but I hadn't yet.
BLOCK: That was 2004. Today, the answer flowed.
NORRIS: Sheryl Stolberg of The New York Times pressed President Bush about his mistakes and he said this:
President BUSH: Clearly, putting a "Mission Accomplished" on an aircraft carrier was a mistake.
NORRIS: And this.
President BUSH: I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the 04 elections was a mistake. I should have argued for immigration reform.
NORRIS: Abu Ghraib was a "disappointment," President Bush said, as was the belief that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.
BLOCK: Mr. Bush's verdict on those missteps? Wait and see.
President BUSH: There is no such thing as short-term history. I don't think you can possibly get the full breath of an administration until time has passed.
BLOCK: That's President Bush at his last scheduled session with the White House reporters today.
President BUSH: I wish you all the very best. I wish you and your families all the best. God bless you.
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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."