Bush defends tumultuous terms in last news conference

Some regrets, but says US image intact

President Bush fielded questions from reporters for nearly an hour yesterday. He showed flashes of anger and frustration as he defended his eight years in office. President Bush fielded questions from reporters for nearly an hour yesterday. He showed flashes of anger and frustration as he defended his eight years in office. (Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images)
By Susan Milligan
Globe Staff / January 13, 2009
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WASHINGTON - Defiant but self-deprecating, gracious but indignant, President Bush yesterday defended his tumultuous terms in office, acknowledging mistakes but insisting he had consistently done what he thought was right.

In his final news conference, the departing president thanked the press corps, although it may have "misunderestimated" him at times, Bush said in joking reference to his legendary mangling of words. But the president also showed flashes of anger and frustration as he defended his eight years in office, bristling at the suggestion that the United States had lost moral authority in the world and saying history might judge him more kindly than contemporary opinion leaders do now.

"I think it's a good, strong record," he said at the White House. "You know, presidents can try to avoid hard decisions and therefore avoid controversy. That's just not my nature."

The president also plans a primetime farewell address to the nation Thursday, the White House announced.

Bush - who in a news conference four years ago could not come up with a single example of a mistake he had made in office - yesterday listed several, including his landing on an aircraft carrier in May 2003 under a "Mission Accomplished" banner, a sign derided by war critics as American troops continued to die in Iraq.

The president also acknowledged that he should have pushed immigration reform after the 2004 elections, instead of an overhaul of Social Security that was unpopular with lawmakers. On Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 natural disaster that led Democrats and Republicans alike to question the Bush administration's competence, Bush said he has thought "long and hard" about whether his team responded quickly enough to help victims.

Despite Bush's expressions of regret, he did not take direct responsibility for the missteps.

The "Mission Accomplished" banner, he said, was a mistake because "it sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but, nevertheless, it conveyed a different message."

Bush's Social Security proposal to move more Americans to private pension plans was not wrong in concept but failed because "legislative branches tend to be risk-averse," he said.

And on Katrina - a storm that did serious damage to the Gulf Coast and Bush's approval ratings - the president said while the response "absolutely" could have gone better, "don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed."

Policy decisions that drew the greatest criticism of the Bush administration - such as the failed intelligence leading up to the Iraq war and the inhumane treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib - were described by Bush yesterday not as failures, but as "disappointments." And the president did not lay blame on anyone for those episodes.

"I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were - things didn't go according to plan; let's put it that way," he said.

The president showed the folksiness that attracted voters in his 2000 campaign, teasing reporters and joking about going mountain-biking to forget about the day-to-day pressures of the presidency. But he also became angry when a reporter asked whether the nation's moral standing in the world had diminished under his leadership because of Abu Ghraib and other matters.

"It may be damaged amongst some of the elite. But people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope," Bush said. "In terms of the decisions that I had made to protect the homeland, I wouldn't worry about popularity," he added.

The president had little fresh to say about current crises, such as the economy and turmoil in the Middle East.

Israel, Bush said, should be "mindful" of avoiding civilian casualties in the Gaza Strip, but "has a right to defend herself." And the president said he would be willing to ask Congress to release the second, $350 billion installment of financial services bailout money if President-elect Barack Obama asked him to do so. Obama made the request to Bush later yesterday, and the president speedily complied.

With a week left in Bush's term, Washington has largely made the mental transition to an Obama administration. The president-elect met with congressional leaders last week to discuss an economic stimulus plan, and delivered a major policy address on the economy.

His Cabinet nominees have begun their confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill.

While the Obama team forged ahead with the transition, Bush reflected on his past and mulled his immediate future as a private citizen. Not one for wearing a straw hat and lying on the beach - "particularly since I stopped drinking," Bush quipped - the president said he expected himself, "as a Type A personality," to have an active post-White House life.

Bush had kind words for Obama, whom the president called "a very smart and engaging person." Bush said he considers himself "fortunate to have a front-row seat on what is going to be an historic moment for the country" as the nation prepares to inaugurate its first African-American commander in chief.

And he hopes Obama will have an easier time of it, Bush said, instead of being subject to the "needless name-calling" in politics during his presidency.

"I just hope the tone is respectful," Bush said. "He deserves it, and so does the country."

Susan Milligan can be reached at

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