President Bush has begun the long climb up the steep hill of history, signaling in the past week how he will burnish a legacy weighed down by war, an economic crisis and disastrous poll numbers.
As the final 50 days of his two-term tenure expire, Mr. Bush - who has said repeatedly that he would entrust his legacy to historians - has used reflective interviews to tout as accomplishments his fight against AIDS and malaria, the creation of a government-funded prescription drug program for Medicare and his efforts to liberate millions in Iraq.
But the puzzling questions Mr. Bush’s legacy will pose for historians were underscored Monday. He accepted the praise of President-elect Barack Obama and other world leaders for his efforts on HIV/AIDS, hours before he was shown saying in a nationally televised interview that he was “unprepared for war” that has helped ravage his approval ratings.
“In other words, I didn’t campaign and say, ‘Please vote for me, I’ll be able to handle an attack.’ In other words, I didn’t anticipate war,” Mr. Bush said during the interview, taped last week with ABC News.
He said the biggest stain on his time in office has come from incorrect intelligence reports that served as the basis for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Mr. Bush did not, as he often has done, say that he would have sent the U.S. Army into Iraq even if he knew the country’s dictator did not possess weapons of mass destruction. Instead, the president said that his momentous choice was “a do-over that I can’t do.”
It was the closest he has come to acknowledging the war was in any way a mistake, but Mr. Bush also said that his “greatest accomplishment” as president was maintaining a conviction that radical Islamic terrorism represents a mortal threat to the country, and preventing a repeat of the Sept. 11 attacks.
“I keep recognizing we’re in a war against ideological thugs,” said the president.
Mr. Bush’s comments came less than a week after he said he wanted to be remembered “as somebody who liberated 50 million people,” added a government-funded prescription drug program to Medicare, combated AIDS and malaria, and remained true to his political principles.
The president made those statements in an interview with his sister, Doro Bush Koch, for the Story Corps program, an oral history project that airs on National Public Radio. The Nov. 12 interview was aired Thursday.
Mr. Bush is not the only one defending his presidency. His former adviser, Karl Rove, will appear in New York Tuesday evening, where he’ll argue against the proposition that Mr. Bush is “the worst president of the last 50 years.”
At the very moment that ABC released the transcript of the interview on Monday morning, Mr. Bush was receiving an “international medal of peace” from the Rev. Rick Warren, an internationally known evangelical pastor, at a ceremony in Washington.
Mr. Warren marked the 20th annual World AIDS Day by touting the success of PEPFAR, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, which the White House says has given life-saving treatment to more than 2 million people, at a cost to the U.S. taxpayer of $15 billion over five years.
Globally, the U.S. has helped more than 10 million people, including 4 million orphans, receive treatment.
“I think as time passes, people will look back on this as one of your most remarkable contributions, Mr. President,” former President Bill Clinton said, in a message that was read to the gathering.
Musician-activist Bono called Mr. Bush “a hero” for his work on the issue, and Mr.Obama, in a taped video address played after Mr. Bush left the meeting, vowed to continue the president’s work.
“I salute President Bush for his leadership in crafting a plan for AIDS relief in Africa and backing it up with funding dedicated to saving lives and preventing the spread of the disease,” said Mr. Obama, the son of a Kenyan. “And my administration will continue this critical work to address the crisis around the world.”
As Mr. Bush was being honored in Washington, Mr. Obama was announcing his national security team in Chicago, a symbol of the extent to which Mr. Obama already has assumed a leadership role before taking office.
Mr. Bush, in the ABC interview, said he did not “feel any intrusion whatsoever” by Mr. Obama’s actions, which have been spurred by the economic crisis and by Mr. Bush’s lame-duck status.
“Our administration still will be making the decisions necessary until he becomes the president,” Mr. Bush said.
Asked by ABC whether the outcome of the presidential election was a repudiation of his administration, Mr. Bush put the blame more broadly.
“I think it was a repudiation of Republicans,” he said, adding that some voters probably were protesting him by voting for Mr. Obama.
Mr. Bush, who sat for a 40-minute conversation with Mr. Warren - along with first lady Laura Bush and Mr. Warren’s wife, Kay - was passionate as he talked about PEPFAR’s role within his larger freedom agenda.
“I believe in the universality of freedom and have not deviated from that during my presidency,” Mr. Bush said.
“I would hope that when it’s all said and done, people would say this is a guy who showed up to solve problems.”
Mr. Bush also alluded to his unpopularity in the U.S. by comparing crowds in Africa to crowds at home.
During his visit to Africa earlier this year, large crowds lined the motorcade route to cheer as Mr. Bush’s limousine passed.
“You see them waving, with all five fingers I might add,” Mr. Bush said, referring to those along the motorcade route in the U.S. who sometimes make obscene gestures.
“Everybody wants to be liked,” Mr. Bush said. “But being liked because you’ve actually done something constructive that’s measurable is the best way to be liked.”