Bush concedes ‘disappointments’ in final news conference

WASHINGTON – President Bush on Monday declared emphatically that “most people around the world, they respect America,” strongly disagreeing with the idea that the country’s moral standing suffered during his time in office. He said he did what he thought was right in facing crises from Hurricane Katrina to prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib, even though sometimes “things didn’t go according to plan.”

At his last planned news conference before he leaves office at noon Jan. 20, Bush called Abu Ghraib “a huge disappointment,” and said finding out that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had not stockpiled weapons of mass destruction before the U.S. invasion in 2003 was deeply frustrating as well.

“I don’t know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were – things didn’t go according to plan …,” Bush said. “There is no such thing as short-term history. I don’t think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed.”

Bush said the greatest challenge President-elect Barack Obama and his successors will likely face is “an attack on our homeland” akin to the events of Sept. 11, 2001. Such a scenario, he predicted, would make people less likely to question interrogation tactics and other extreme security measures adopted by the government during his tenure.

“Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here?” Bush asked, his voice rising. “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. When people were hauled up in front of Congress and members of Congress were asking questions about, how come you didn’t know this, that, or the other? And then we start putting policy in place – legal policy in place to connect the dots, and all of a sudden people were saying, ‘How come you’re connecting the dots?’ ”

Bush also said he still considers North Korea and Iran to pose significant threats to America’s well-being.

The president defended his handling of the economy, saying he “chunked aside” closely held free-market ideals to support a massive Wall Street bailout because he was convinced the consequences for the nation would be dire if he didn’t. He said he had faced tough questions from people in America’s heartland who were upset that their tax money was being used to prop up companies that helped cause the problem.

In response, Bush said, he told them: “If you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act, too.”

Shortly after the news conference, White House press secretary Dana Perino said Bush had asked Congress to release the $350 billion in emergency relief funds remaining in the rescue package, having been asked by Obama to do so.

“President Bush agreed to the president-elect’s request,” Perino said in a statement. “We will continue our consultations with the president-elect’s transition team, and with Congress, on how best to proceed in accordance with the requirements of the statute.”

Obama said in interviews aired Sunday that his transition team is working to build support for the funds among members of Congress by convincing them “that this is not just money that is being given to banks without any strings attached.”

In a wide-ranging valedictory on his eight years in office, Bush was at once wistful and defensive – animated in discussing the steps he took in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks and reflective in talking about how his “time in the klieg lights” was nearing an end.

Next Tuesday, he said, he was looking forward to participating in Obama’s inauguration – a moment he said should make the country proud. Bush said he considers himself “fortunate to have a front-row seat on what is going to be an historic moment,” when the first African-American president takes office. “President-elect Obama’s election does speak volumes about how far this country has come when it comes to racial relations.”

Bush lunched with Obama at the White House last week, along with the three living former presidents, his father George H.W. Bush, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton. He said Monday that he “never felt isolated” while in the White House bubble, and said he did not think Obama would, either.

“He’s a 45-second commute away from a great wife and two little girls that love him dearly,” Bush said. “The phrase ‘burdens of the office’ are overstated … the job is so exciting and so profound, that the disappointments will be clearly, you know, a minor irritant.”

Asked about the Israeli military attack on the Gaza Strip that began last month, Bush repeated his position that the key to ending the violence is for the militant Islamist group Hamas to stop firing rockets into southern Israel.

“There will not be a sustainable cease-fire if they continue firing rockets …,” Bush said. “Israel has a right to defend herself.”

At the same time, he said, Israel should try to minimize civilian casualties and reiterated his support for establishing a Palestinian state that can exist alongside Israel.

On another major controversy of his presidency, Bush said his response to Hurricane Katrina was criticized too harshly, citing the rooftop rescue of tens of thousands of residents by U.S. Coast Guard and other helicopters as an effort that was both effective and efficient.

Bush, who was faulted for not responding more directly in the hurricane’s aftermath, said he believes he also would have been criticized had he been a more visible presence in the devastated region. Had he landed Air Force One at a New Orleans airport to tour the damage personally, for example, he would have been accused of diverting local emergency personnel to coordinate his tour, he said.

Bush opened the news conference by bidding farewell to a press corps that has often sparred bitterly with his administration, telling reporters that “through it all … I have respected you” even though “sometimes didn’t like the stories that you wrote.”

Bush said he would try to keep a low profile after Obama is inaugurated and he and first lady Laura Bush return to Texas. “When I get out of here, I’m getting off the stage,” Bush said. “… I’ve had my time in the klieg lights.”

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