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Bush claims civil rights gains

Declaring Barack Obama's election a "very hopeful moment for race relations," President Bush asserts his own administration did much to empower minorities, calling the No Child Left Behind education law "a piece of civil rights legislation" and saying his call to overhaul Social Security was aimed at giving blacks a greater stake in the nation's future.

In a wide-ranging Oval Office interview with The Washington Times, the president also laid out the challenges facing Mr. Obama. "The international economic turmoil ... will affect a lot of his early presidency," Mr. Bush said. He also warned of a looming war with drug cartels where "the front line of the fight will be Mexico" and dismissed as "urban myth" a commonly held belief that he squelched dissenting opinion among his advisers.

Mr. Bush, who leaves office in exactly 30 days, said he had worked hard throughout his eight years in office to lift minorities, in part by increasing homeownership and expanding opportunities for small businesses. But he said that the Republican Party will have to find new ways to persuade blacks and Hispanics that it is working in their best interests, citing his landmark bipartisan education bill to hold failing schools accountable as a prime example.

"No Child Left Behind is a piece of civil rights legislation. And it's going to be important for future Republican leaders to remind people that accountability in the public schools is leading toward closing an achievement gap, and that it was a Republican president who worked with both Democrats and Republicans to get it passed," the president said in a 40-minute interview Friday.

Mr. Bush said Mr. Obama's election is a "moment of healing for the country," but added that race relations "is an evolving issue." Still, the election of the first black president clearly moved the president, who leaned forward in his chair by a fireplace in the Oval Office as he recounted what he saw on the day his successor was chosen.

"I was touched when I saw on television people with tears streaming down their face saying, 'I never dreamt I would see this day.' And there was a lot of emotion and a lot of pride in America as an African-American rises to the presidency. And to me this is a very hopeful moment for race relations," he said.

Although Mr. Bush started working on passage of the education bill even before he took office in 2001 - inviting top lawmakers to Austin, Texas, to seek consensus and eventually winning the strong support of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy - Democrats, including the liberal icon from Massachusetts, now deride the bill as fatally flawed and advocate either its repeal or a major overhaul.

The president made the legislation an early centerpiece of his first-term agenda, calling the proclivity of inner-city schools to advance students who cannot read or write at grade level the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Since passage of the law, the gaps in reading and math scores between white and minority 9-year-olds fell to an all-time low, and 44 states improved on standardized test scores.

Mr. Bush said his ownership society was "aimed at a lot of people," especially the black community. And while Democrats opposed the creation of personal savings accounts with investments in the stock market - investments that would have been prone to the very financial meltdown that has occurred on Wall Street - Mr. Bush said overhauling Social Security would have benefited minorities.

"The philosophy behind my personal savings accounts and Social Security was aimed at encouraging and allowing individuals to take some of the money that normally would have gone into a system that is going broke and realize the benefits of compounding rate of interest so that they can see their assets accumulate," he said.

As in several of his recent interviews, Mr. Bush was introspective, reflective, even nostalgic and wistful. Asked at the outset what he planned to do Jan. 21, when he will wake up at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a former president, he said: "It's really hard to tell. I've been in public life now for 14 years. My life has been structured. I have had tasks, immediate tasks, nearly every day of my time in public service - much more so as the president. And so I'm not sure what to anticipate. I know I'll have a - I'll wake up in a place I love, next to a woman I love."

He said he has no qualms about fading into the background as his father did, echoing Mr. Obama's refrain that there is only one president at a time. "I, frankly, have had my - enough time in the lights, and I won't - I really - I'm confident I won't be craving for attention."

Obama's challenges

While Mr. Bush has been retrospective in those recent interviews, The Times asked him to look forward, especially to the trials and tribulations that will face the incoming president.

"He'll be dealing with a transforming Middle East, one in which freedom is on the march. But as freedom marches, it creates tension and concerns," he said.

"He'll be dealing with Iran. But in the case of Iran, he does have a coalition of nations who have dedicated themselves to pressuring Iran to give up their nuclear-weapons ambitions. ... He'll have an opportunity to work with the Palestinians and Israelis to define a Palestinian state. One substantive change since I've been president is now the two-state solution has become the centerpiece of thinking on both sides."

The president said Mr. Obama also will be dealing with al Qaeda threats and that "his biggest job, and the job of future presidents, will be to work to secure the country."

Mr. Obama will face a rising China, an India that is "now more confident in its relationship with the United States," but "at the same time, will have to deal with Pakistan, and encourage the Pakistan government to continue to go after the terrorists in the remote regions of their country."

In the newly emerging democracy of Iraq, "he'll find it interesting to deal with elected officials as they work through their - these issues through their parliament. You know, politics is breaking out in Iraq, and sometimes their politics can be very emotional. But it is a democracy."

In Afghanistan, the new president will grapple with the Taliban, "which refuses to give up."

"On the other hand, he will have more troops available, if he so chooses, to put them in Afghanistan," Mr. Bush said.

Further out on the radar screen, Mr. Bush said, Mr. Obama will need to deal "with these drug cartels in our own neighborhood."

"And the front line of the fight will be Mexico. ... The drug lords will continue to search for a soft underbelly. And one of the things that future presidents are going to have to make sure of is that they don't find a safe haven in parts of Central America," he said.

'History will be objective'

The president bristled when asked about charges among Washington's elite journalists that he brooks no dissension among his advisers and that he is so stubborn that he rejects opposing viewpoints.

"There's an urban myth involved with my presidency. It's a convenient line for some. But when the truth comes out, people will know that on a lot of issues, big and small, there were differences of opinion. And I listened carefully to the differences of opinion. And the president has got to know - have a sense of timing of when to make decisions and then be decisive," he said, citing his decision to dispatch 30,000 additional troops in a "surge" to Iraq.

"There were a lot of opinions. And the truth of the matter was, there wasn't a lot initially who would have said 30,000 more. Some said get out. Some said pull out of Baghdad. Some said 'some' troops. And I eventually decided on 30,000 more troops. But there was a lot of debate," he said.

Mr. Bush also brushed back the notion, put forward by his former spokesman, Scott McClellan, that he made no effort to push past partisan politics and work with Democrats.

"I strongly disagree with that characterization. ... I went up to Capitol Hill early. I was reaching out to a lot of members of the Congress, and we got a lot done. The spirit was good, and the spirit was good after September the 11th.

"But war creates tensions, and when the war didn't go exactly the way some had hoped, it created a certain sense of vitriol in the system. Plus I think there were some - well, there are some in this town who believe that the best way you can advance your own cause is to destroy somebody else."

Can Mr. Obama fare better in a partisan Washington? "He ought to try, and he has a very good chance to do so. I hope so."

Asked if anyone can really ever prepare fully for the presidency, he said, "You learn. You don't have any choice. ... The only thing a president can do is be open-minded, listen to a lot of voices, and give it your all. And I have done that."

On the Iraq war, he said it has been "a hard war to convince people that it's a real war, and it's an ideological conflict, because the - we don't face a nation-state." Asked if Mr. Obama will follow through on the foundation he has laid to battle Islamic extremism, Mr. Bush said flatly: "I would hope that the president-elect and other presidents recognize we're in an ideological struggle, and I would hope that they would have great confidence in the transformative power of freedom."

Mr. Bush was brief when asked if the unpopular war in Iraq - and his own low poll numbers - plus the imploding economy doomed Sen. John McCain's hopes to succeed him in the White House.

"I think he had a very difficult environment in which to run. No question the economic meltdown made it - created a head wind. Secondly, he ran against a well-run campaign. Barack Obama was unbelievably well-financed, well-organized, and they turned out their vote where they needed to," Mr. Bush said.

But he noted that both parties have been counted out before, only to rise from the ashes and return to power.

"I'm very optimistic about our party because most people agree with our philosophy," he said. "In order to recover, we're going to need, you know, fresh candidates, new folks coming into the system who articulate the conservative philosophy in a way where the average citizen says, 'The guy cares about me; he understands my concerns; and his policies will help create an environment in which I can improve my life.'"

On his own legacy, Mr. Bush said he feels he will be vindicated "when the truth comes out." Asked how that will happen, he said: "Just with time and objective historians taking a look. ... History has a way of becoming more objective with time."

"I fully understand there's a lot of people who didn't like my policy, so it's going to be hard for them to divorce themselves from the emotions of the moment as they analyze and - analyze history," Mr. Bush said.

"And I hope that I will - I'm going to write a book, and its objective is to draw people into the Oval Office here and help them realize what the environment was like when I made certain decisions, so that when people analyze this administration they'll have ... one man's point of view that happened to be in the center of it all."

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