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Bush delivers a quiet, unrepentant farewell

Taking a final turn in the spotlight before the nation begins a four-day celebration of its new leaders, President Bush on Thursday offered a defense of his widely unpopular administration, telling Americans that while they may have opposed some of his policies, “I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.”

The nationally televised address marked Bush’s last planned public appearance before Tuesday’s swearing-in ceremony for Barack Obama, and it drew heavily on the powerful symbols of the office.

Speaking from the stately East Room of the White House, Bush presented a campaign-style collection of average Americans who he felt represented his achievements at home and abroad, including firefighters, volunteers, wounded soldiers and a former prison inmate who heads a faith-based organization.

“There are things I would do differently if given the chance,” Bush said in the 13-minute address, carried live by every major television network. “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.”

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Bush’s speech came as the city around him began gearing up for a highly choreographed series of inaugural events celebrating Obama, starting Saturday, when the president-elect takes a whistle-stop train ride tracing the path of Abraham Lincoln from Philadelphia to Washington. Sunday features a star-studded concert at the Lincoln Memorial.

The culmination will be Tuesday’s ceremony, for which more than 1 million onlookers are expected to brave subfreezing temperatures to cram the National Mall and watch the country’s first African American president take the oath of office.

Bush, the occupant of the Oval Office for a few more days before returning to his home state of Texas, tried for the last time to focus the country’s attention on what he considers his greatest accomplishments. Chief among them, he said, was that the nation had not suffered a terrorist attack since the Sept. 11, 2001, strikes on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

The address capped a weeks-long effort to rehabilitate an image battered by economic turmoil, an unpopular war in Iraq and controversial spying, interrogation and anti-terrorism tactics.

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Vice President Dick Cheney has made complementary comments in his own interviews in recent days, specifically warning that rolling back the administration’s anti-terrorism programs, as Obama has pledged to do, would “put the nation at risk.”

Bush was not so blunt, but in offering a brief prescription for the next administration, he said the country “must resist complacency. We must keep our resolve. And we must never let down our guard.”

In reviewing his two terms in office Thursday night, Bush in effect sought to bring viewers back in time seven years, to the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, a period in which he enjoyed record-high approval ratings, in the 90s.

One of the firefighters in the East Room audience was Bob Beckwith, who stood by Bush at ground zero on Sept. 14, 2001, as the president addressed rescue workers using a bullhorn. Another was Rocco Chierichella, who during those remarks shouted, “I can’t hear you,” spurring one of Bush’s most memorable lines: “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.”

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But Thursday showed the distance Bush has traveled since then. The nation saw a grayer man, his approval ratings in the 30s, facing a country in which many are poised to celebrate his departure.

The outgoing president acknowledged no mistakes. He conceded suffering “setbacks,” though he did not detail them, and he said that there had been a “legitimate debate” over his decisions in pursuing the struggle against terrorism.

But he said his success on that front was indisputable.

“There can be little debate about the results,” he said. “America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.”

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Bush hailed Afghanistan, where America first targeted Al Qaeda and the Taliban after the 2001 attacks, as a “young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school.”

He described Iraq as transformed from a “brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States.”

And Bush declared victories on the domestic front, arguing that Americans pay lower taxes and that children are learning more in school.

He took credit for his administration’s response to the global financial crisis, pointing to “decisive measures” designed to “safeguard our economy.”

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“These are very tough times for hard-working families, but the toll would be far worse if we had not acted,” he said.

But Bush’s speech was notable, too, for what he did not say. He did not mention the collapse of the rationale for invading Iraq -- the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Nor did he mention terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, whom Bush once vowed to capture “dead or alive” but who this week released a taunting audiotape reminding the world that he will outlive Bush’s presidency.

Even as Bush maintained that Americans prospered during his tenure, he did not mention that wages have stagnated or that, despite his goal of forging an “ownership society,” a mortgage foreclosure crisis now is forcing many people from their homes.

Thursday’s speech marked the latest step in an elaborate “legacy project” orchestrated in recent weeks by Bush’s aides -- and the final chance for Bush to be granted a prime-time network television slot.

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Presidential historian Allan Lichtman said Bush was unlikely to have much success persuading Americans to reassess his tenure but that he was trying harder than any of his modern predecessors to do so.

“Typically the first-draft evaluation doesn’t dramatically change,” said Lichtman, a professor at American University.

Noam Neusner, a former Bush speechwriter, said, “Once you lose the mechanism of the White House -- once the staff has gone to the winds and you no longer have this vast apparatus to disseminate information, to put things to paper -- then you lose a critical part of controlling the narrative.”

Bush has repeatedly said in recent months that historians would not be able to fairly assess his legacy for many years. He has invoked President Truman, who left office in 1953 deeply unpopular but later gained esteem as historians concluded that he made prescient foreign policy decisions at the outset of the Cold War that proved beneficial in the U.S. struggle against communism.

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Bush aides believe the president was forced to get a late start defending his legacy, largely because he made a strategic decision to keep a low profile during the 2008 campaign in order to avoid hurting GOP nominee Sen. John McCain, who sought to distance himself from the White House.

But since the November election, Bush and his team have pushed aggressively to shape perceptions of his legacy. The White House website carried a detailed list of his achievements, and that material was printed in 5,000 booklets distributed to administration officials and journalists.

A more detailed version is being included in a book to be published soon, perhaps by Bush’s new presidential library at Southern Methodist University.

Bush aide Ed Gillespie said Thursday that the White House had “put information out there that will guide or at least give historians accurate data from which to judge things.”

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peter.wallsten@latimes.com


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