By offering a wistful and introspective closing argument to the American people who elected him twice but then lost confidence in him, retiring President George W. Bush is attempting to write the first draft of his own history.
First came a sober public confession of mistakes and disappointments in his final news conference Monday -- a remarkably personal moment for a president never prone to self-examination or questioning under the klieg lights. He also offered a robust defense of his administration, including its response to Hurricane Katrina, and a defiant insistence that he waged a necessary war in Iraq and should not be judged too quickly for it.
On Thursday he is to make a prime-time address from the White House, which Bush’s spokeswoman said was planned to “reflect on his time in office and the ways our country has changed these past eight years.”
But that televised farewell from the East Room is unlikely to echo the list of mistakes Bush acknowledged to reporters in the West Wing on Monday: prematurely declaring “mission accomplished” in Iraq; failing to find the weapons of mass destruction cited as the reason for the Iraq war; the abuse of Iraqi prisoners; and his own campaigning for Social Security reform after reelection instead of trying to change immigration policy.
And he expressed regret for talking, sometimes, like a cowboy -- “mission accomplished” being a prime example.
Bush seemed to make peace with fate.
“I believe this -- the phrase ‘burdens of the office’ is overstated,” Bush said. “You know, it’s kind of like, ‘Why me? . . . Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?’ It’s just . . . it’s pathetic, isn’t it, self pity.”
He alluded to the dire advice he received from his economic advisors and to some of his friends’ objections to his solutions:
“I chunked aside some of my free market principles when I was told . . . that the situation we were facing could be worse than the Great Depression.”
Bush said that he’s told those friends:
“Well, if you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act too.”
Bush argued that a fair view of his administration would emerge only over time. “There is no such thing as short-term history,” he said. “I don’t think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration till time has passed.”
Current views of the president, in fact, remain harsh. For more than 2 1/2 years, more Americans have disapproved of his job performance than approved of it, according to the Gallup Poll.
The news conference capped a string of interviews in which Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney defended the administration’s record -- part of an orchestrated effort in an outgoing president’s final days to salvage his battered legacy.
The White House website features several documents enumerating the administration’s accomplishments, such as preventing additional terrorist attacks, advancing missile defense and fighting AIDS in Africa.
Bush “just thinks he’s getting a bad rap, and he’s also determined to put his side of the story on the record,” said Bruce Buchanan, a University of Texas government professor who has followed Bush since his early days in politics. “He is a guy who prizes being liked, even though he would never admit it.”
Buchanan and Princeton University presidential scholar Fred Greenstein suggested that Bush’s unusual remarks might have been inspired by the poll numbers and policy failures the retiring president faces.
“The remarks today were not characteristic of what we have seen of Bush over the past eight years,” Greenstein said. “There was no swagger. . . . There was a more reflective, more chastened feeling to it.”
Buchanan said he could think of no other president who granted so many interviews and sought so much television time in his waning days.
“His group has clearly concluded that things are so bad, they have to respond,” he said.
But despite Bush’s sinking public approval ratings -- less than 30% in the most recent Gallup Poll, down from a high of 90% after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- he said he never felt isolated in office.
“In times of war, people get emotional. I understand that,” Bush said, insisting he “never really, you know, spent that much time, frankly, worrying about the loud voices.”
In retrospect, he said, some of his choices were wrong.
“History will look back and determine that which could have been done better,” said Bush, volunteering his own review:
“Clearly, putting a ‘mission accomplished’ on [an] aircraft carrier was a mistake,” he said, referring to the banner strung across the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, where he landed several weeks after the invasion of Iraq to declare that major combat operations were finished.
“Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake,” said the president, who has said previously that he regrets calling for Osama bin Laden to be captured “dead or alive” and taunting the nation’s enemies to “bring them on.”
“I’ve thought long and hard about Katrina,” Bush said of the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005. “You know, could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge?”
Soon after the hurricane, Bush flew over the area in Air Force One but did not stop. A photo of the president looking out the window at the devastation below contributed to a sense that he was detached from it.
But Bush disputed the widespread contention that his government was slow to respond. “Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there were 30,000 people pulled off the roofs right after the storm passed,” he said.
In addition, Bush said, he should have pushed for immigration reform soon after his 2004 reelection, not for changes in Social Security. Congress, he said, was not convinced that a Social Security crisis was imminent and was reluctant to act.
On world affairs, Bush acknowledged that the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by the American military “obviously was a huge disappointment.”
So was the failure of prewar intelligence indicating that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction, he said.
Yet Bush maintained that the United States has not forfeited its standing in the world. “I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged,” he said.
Scott McClellan, Bush’s former press secretary who published a critical tell-all book last year, said the president and his aides were simply convinced of their righteous place in history.
“He is clinging to one last hope that history will vindicate him, that Iraq will turn out to be a thriving democracy,” McClellan said in an interview Monday. “It’s putting a lot of hopes in one basket, and he’s convinced himself rightly or wrongly that it will.”
McClellan said he was struck by the president’s failure to concede any substantive mistakes -- saying that Bush’s only contrition was reserved for tactics and communication errors.
“The one thing missing was candor,” McClellan said. “Until he acknowledges a single policy mistake, I think it’s going to be hard for him to get people to tune in and pay attention to some of the notable policy achievements.”
Bush will elaborate on what he sees as his administration’s accomplishments in his Thursday address, which is scheduled for 5 p.m. PST. “This is not going to be a swan song,” White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said. “He will not be looking to refight old battles.”
As he prepares to leave office, Bush offered his own reaction to the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first African American president.
“Look, I was affected by the TV after the elections -- when I saw people saying, ‘I never thought I would see the day that a black person would be elected president,’ ” Bush said. “I consider myself fortunate to have a front-row seat on what is going to be an historic moment for the country.”
Yet he also warned his successor: “There is an enemy that still is out there. I’m telling you, there’s an enemy that would like to attack America, Americans, again.”
Bush’s public standing today leaves him little room for a political presence. He plans to retire to his ranch near Crawford, Texas, and to his new home in Dallas. The George W. Bush Presidential Library is to be at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
“When I get out of here, I’m getting off the stage,” Bush said.
At the same time, the athletic 62-year-old who quit drinking after his 40th birthday and embraced jogging and later mountain-biking, suggested his “type-A personality” will prevent him from disappearing altogether.
“I just can’t envision myself, you know, the big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach,” said Bush, pausing and adding with an audible aside: “Particularly since I quit drinking.”
Suggesting that he had never been able to escape the presidency -- not when on vacation at his ranch and not when mountain biking -- Bush made this prediction about retirement:
“I wake up in Crawford on . . . Wednesday morning, and I suspect I’ll make Laura coffee.”
Peter Wallsten and Tom Hamburger of the Washington Bureau contributed to this report.