- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009

President Bush, in his final public remarks to close out a tumultuous presidency, asked his many critics to judge him on his ability to prevent a repeat of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and on his self-proclaimed purity of motive, while hailing his successor’s inauguration as a “moment of hope.”

“Tonight, I am filled with gratitude. I thank the American people for the trust you have given me,” Mr. Bush said, speaking from the White House East Room to a live television audience and a group of more than 200 that included Vice President Dick Cheney, such current and former administration officials as Joshua B. Bolten, Henry M. Paulson Jr. and Michael Gerson, and such elected officials as Bob and Elizabeth Dole.

The president’s farewell speech looked back on his eight years in office - which he dubbed a “period of consequence, a time set apart” - and attempted to explain all of his most contentious decisions through the prism of the Sept. 11terrorist attacks.

“As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did,” he said.

He said though there is “legitimate debate” about such actions as the invasion of Iraq, the detentions at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the warrantless surveillance of phone calls and harsh interrogation techniques some call torture, “there can be little debate about the results.”

“America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil,” he said.

The president, in his last planned public remarks while in office, showed deference to his detractors.

“Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks. There are things I would do differently if given the chance,” he said. “Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right.”

Mr. Bush, who has suffered the lowest approval ratings of any president in the modern era, made something of a plea to those who have disagreed with him.

“You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions,” he said.

As for his successor, President-elect Barack Obama, Mr. Bush had nothing but praise.

“Five days from now, the world will witness the vitality of American democracy,” Mr. Bush said of Mr. Obama’s inauguration Tuesday. “Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose story reflects the enduring promise of our land. This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.”

Mr. Bush, however, implored the nation to “resist complacency” in the fight against international terrorism.

Click here for text of President Bush’s remarks

The president also pointed to some of his guests in the audience to highlight examples of courage in everyday Americans, but also to point out policy successes and memorable moments from his presidency.

Rocco Chierichella, a retired New York firefighter, is the man who set up one of the most-cited lines of the Bush presidency. Mr. Chierichella was at ground zero Sept. 14, 2001, when Mr. Bush visited.

As the president began to address a group of firefighters and aid workers on the pile, Mr. Chierichella was the man who yelled out, “I can’t hear you.”

Mr. Bush, speaking through a bullhorn, responded, “I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.” The firefighters went wild with approval.

Army Sgt. Neil Duncan, of Maple Grove, Minn., lost his legs to a bomb in Afghanistan on Dec. 5, 2005. Mr. Bush met Sgt. Duncan on July 24, 2006, while visiting wounded soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he invited the soldier to come run with him at the White House once he had received prosthetic legs and fully recovered.

On July 25, 2007, Sgt. Duncan ran around the South Lawn at the White House with Mr. Bush.

Also present was the principal of a charter school in New Orleans; a businesswoman from Nashville, Tenn., who the president met on a trip; the wife and mother of a New York firefighter killed Sept. 11, 2001; and the founder of Teach for America, among others.

“In citizens like these, we see the best of our country - resilient and hopeful, caring and strong. These virtues give me an unshakable faith in America,” Mr. Bush said.

The format of the speech was a mix of what past presidents have done. The past few presidents to have given a farewell address have either spoken from the White House without an audience or gone to the Capitol for a final State of the Union-style address.

“The president wanted to be with people for his farewell address,” said Ed Gillespie, Mr. Bush’s counselor.

But Mr. Gillespie said that the idea of going to speak to members of Congress at the Capitol, like some other presidents have done, was never seriously discussed.

“This seemed to be a very comfortable way by which to do this,” Mr. Gillespie said of the eventual format, adding that the president also wanted to “reflect on his time in office” during the 13-minute speech.

“You go through a lot together, and the president, I think, is thinking of all … that we’ve been through and all the people who’ve been through it with him,” he said.

After Mr. Bush left the room, the crowd stood and applauded. A few moments later, with the TV cameras off, Mr. Bush returned to the room and worked his way through the audience, shaking hands, giving hugs and smiling broadly while the crowd continued to applaud.

He spent nearly three minutes greeting old friends and allies, and then again mounted the stage and walked out of the room with one more wave, and the crowd erupted in one last loud cheer. Mr. Bolten and some other officials appeared to be a little emotional during the curtain call.

Despite the foreign-policy focus, the president did spend part of his speech promoting his domestic achievements, ranging from the faith-based initiative to his tax cuts.

On the economy, he said that the government-funded bailouts of financial institution over the past few months have held off financial collapse.

“These are very tough times for hardworking families, but the toll would be far worse if we had not acted,” he said, also expressing hope for the future: “America is a young country, full of vitality, constantly growing and renewing itself.”

Mr. Bush said that he had devoted his presidency to promoting liberty as a gift of God to all people.

“This is the belief that gave birth to our nation. And in the long run, advancing this belief is the only practical way to protect our citizens,” he said.

On Tuesday, he will return to Texas to begin work on a book, his presidential library and the accompanying “Freedom Institute,” which will allow him to devote the bulk of his post-presidency life to making this case.

“Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right,” he said.

The president signed off: “My fellow Americans, for the final time: Good night. May God bless this house and our next president. And may God bless you and our wonderful country.”


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