- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 13, 2009

UPDATED:

President Bush, who four years ago couldn’t identify a single mistake by his administration, on Monday ticked off a list of its shortcomings and disappointments, ranging from failures to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to its oft-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina.

And in his 50th and final solo White House press conference, the president said his successor, Barack Obama, will feel the weight of the presidency and the nation’s safety on his shoulders. He also spoke of making his wife, Laura, coffee on his first morning out of office.

Mr. Bush displayed flashes of remorse, wit and humor when discussing missteps such as the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq, his attempt to overhaul Social Security rather than take on immigration reform in 2005, and the unfurling of a “Mission Accomplished” banner on an aircraft carrier shortly after Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled.

But the president, who will give a farewell address to the nation in prime time Thursday evening, also vibrated with intensity when defending his decisions to protect the country after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

“Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here?” Mr. Bush said, leaning hard into his lectern. “Do you remember what the environment was like in Washington? I do.”

Mr. Bush said in a recent interview that one of the main purposes of the book he plans to write will be to recapture the sense of emergency and fear that formed the context of his administration’s decisions in the months and years after Sept. 11.

He has been hounded by criticism of his decision to invade Iraq and of the post-invasion occupation, as well as for the domestic-surveillance programs he authorized and the enhanced interrogation techniques he approved that some say amounted to torture of detainees.

His strategy over the past year, as talk has turned more consistently to his legacy, has been to leave his fate in the hands of historians. But in recent weeks he has added what is essentially a critique of Monday-morning quarterbacking.

“One thing about the presidency is that you can only make decisions based on the information at hand,” Mr. Bush said. “You don’t get to have information after you make the decision - that’s not the way it works. And you stand by your decisions and you explain why you made the decisions you made.”

Mr. Bush has taken many lumps in recent months for his response to the economic crisis, with many conservatives likening his actions to a step toward socialism.

“I readily concede I chunked aside some of my free-market principles,” Mr. Bush said. “I was concerned that the credit freeze would cause us to be headed toward a depression greater than the Great Depression.”

Mr. Bush said he is encouraged that “financial markets are beginning to thaw” because of his “very aggressive decisions.”

“Look, I inherited a recession, I am ending on a recession. In the meantime, there were 52 months of uninterrupted job growth,” he said.

Mr. Bush categorized some of the setbacks on his watch as “mistakes,” and some he called “disappointments.”

Both the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal and the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq fell into the latter category, he said.

“I don’t know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but things didn’t go as planned, let’s put it that way,” he said.

“Running the Social Security idea right after the ‘04 elections was a mistake,” he said. “I should have argued for immigration reform. … The crisis was not imminent for Social Security as far as many members of Congress was concerned.”

Mr. Bush said he had “thought long and hard about Katrina” and concluded that his decision not to land Air Force One in New Orleans or Baton Rouge the day after the storm was the right choice, because such a move would have diverted police resources away from vital rescue and recovery efforts.

He rejected the notion that the federal government’s response was substandard.

“Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed,” he said.

Mr. Bush has mentioned all of these shortcomings in recent exit interviews with different reporters but had not lumped them together on any one occasion.

The president acknowledged that North Korea “remains a problem” and that Iran “is still dangerous.” They are the two countries Mr. Bush included in his “axis of evil” - Iraq being the third - against which the president did not take military action.

Mr. Bush said he is concerned that “there might be a highly enriched uranium program” in North Korea, and called on the regime in Pyongyang to allow outside inspectors to verify the cessation of its nuclear weapons program. The North Koreans dragged out negotiations with the U.S. and five other countries over the past two years, and then backed away from key commitments last fall after securing key concessions from the U.S.

The press conference served as one of Mr. Bush’s last moments in the spotlight as president. He dominated much of the day’s news coverage in a way he rarely has recently.

It was only the fourth press conference since the beginning of 2008 for the president, who has kept a particularly low profile in recent weeks, as Mr. Obama has assumed national leadership on the economy.

While the early Monday morning notice of the event set off the usual scurrying of reporters to get downtown, there was not the normal packed house. The back two rows of the 49-seat James S. Brady Press Briefing Room were almost empty moments before the press conference began.

Mr. Bush thanked members of the press.

“We’ve been through a lot together,” he said. “Just seemed like yesterday that I was on the campaign trail and you were analyzing my speeches and my policies.”

“Through it all … I have respected you. Sometimes didn’t like the stories that you wrote or reported on. Sometimes you misunderestimated me. But always the relationship I have felt has been professional. And I appreciate it.”

The press conference also offered insights into the psyche of a man who has famously resisted what he calls “navel-gazing.”

Mr. Bush revealed the heavy weight that has laid upon his shoulders for the past eight years, even as he said the burden of the office is “overstated” and mocked the idea of feeling sorry for himself.

“You never escape the presidency. It travels with you everywhere you go. And there’s not a moment where you don’t think about being president, unless you’re riding mountain bikes as hard as you possibly can, trying to forget for the moment,” said Mr. Bush, an avid mountain biker.

He said that Mr. Obama “will feel the effects the minute he walks in the Oval Office.”

“He’ll come back and go through the inauguration and then he’ll walk in the Oval Office, and there will be a moment when the responsibilities of the president land squarely on his shoulders,” he said.

Mr. Bush, who has talked for the past year of “sprinting to the finish,” sounded relieved to be nearing the end of his time in office.

“When I get out of here, I’m getting off the stage,” he said. “I’ve had my time in the klieg lights.”

He spoke of making coffee for his wife on the morning of Jan. 21, the first day he will wake up as an ex-president, but he also said he likely would be back at work that very same day.

In addition to writing a book, Mr. Bush said, he plans to spend a lot of time building his library at Southern Methodist University, which will include a think tank that promotes his freedom agenda.

“I’m a Type A personality, you know, I just - I just can’t envision myself, you know, the big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach,” he said.