WASHINGTON — In a nostalgic final news conference, President George W. Bush defended his record vigorously and at times sentimentally Monday. He also admitted many mistakes, from the “Mission Accomplished” banner during a 2003 Iraq speech to the discovery that the alleged Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that he used to justify war didn’t exist.
After starting what he called “the ultimate exit interview” with a lengthy and personalized thank-you to the reporters in the room who have covered him over the eight years of his presidency, Bush showed anger at times when presented with some of the main criticisms of his time in office.
He particularly became indignant when asked about America’s bruised image overseas.
“I disagree with this assessment that, you know, that people view America in a dim light,” he said.
Bush said he realizes that some issues such as the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have created controversy at home and around the world. But he defended his actions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including approving tough interrogation methods for suspected terrorists and information-gathering efforts at home in the name of protecting the country.
With the Iraq war in its sixth year, he most aggressively defended his decisions on that issue, which will define his presidency like no other. There have been over 4,000 U.S. deaths since the invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
He said that “not finding weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment.” The accusation that Saddam had and was pursuing weapons of mass destruction was Bush’s main initial justification for going to war.
Bush admitted another miscalculation: Eager to report quick progress after U.S. troops ousted Saddam’s government, he claimed less than two months after the war started that “in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed,” a claim made under a “Mission Accomplished” banner that turned out to be wildly optimistic. “Clearly, putting `Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” he said Monday.
He also defended his decision in 2007 to send an additional 30,000 American troops to Iraq to knock down violence levels and stabilize life there.
“The question is, in the long run, will this democracy survive, and that’s going to be a question for future presidents,” he said.
On another issue destined to figure prominently in his legacy, Bush said he disagrees with those who say the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was slow.
“Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there were 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. … Could things been done better? Absolutely. But when I hear people say the federal response was slow, what are they going to say to those chopper drivers or the 30,000 who got pulled off the roof?” he said.
He called President-elect Barack Obama “a smart, engaging person” and said he wishes his successor all the best. He hinted at the enormous responsibility Obama is about to assume, describing what it might feel like on Jan. 20 when, after taking the oath of office, he enters the Oval Office for the first time as president.
“There’ll be a moment when the responsibility of the president lands squarely on his shoulders,” Bush said.
He gave his view of the most urgent priority facing the incoming president: an attack on the United States. He chose that risk over the dire economic problems now facing the nation.
“I wish that I could report that’s not the case, but there’s still an enemy out there that would like to inflict damage on America — on Americans.”
He said he would ask Congress to release the remaining $350 billion in Wall Street bailout money if Obama so desires. But, he said, Obama hasn’t made that request of him yet.
If Bush should make the request of Congress, it would take the burden off Obama’s shoulders involving a program that is extraordinarily unpopular with many lawmakers and much of the public.
But, said Bush, “He hasn’t asked me to make the request yet and I don’t intend to make the request unless he asks me.”
The last time the president had taken questions from reporters in a public setting was Dec. 14 in Baghdad, a session that hurtled to the top of the news when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush during a question-and-answer session with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Bush’s last full-blown, formal news conference was July 15. He refused to hold another during the final months of last year’s presidential campaign, concerned that the questions would be mostly related to political events and wanting to stay out of GOP nominee John McCain’s spotlight. But even though aides had suggested that would change after the election, Bush still declined to participate in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session until now, just eight days before leaving office.
He has been granting a flurry of legacy-focused interviews as he seeks to shape the view of his presidency on his way out the door.