With rare public emotion, US President George W. Bush sat in judgment on his controversial, consequential presidency on Monday, lamenting mistakes but claiming few as his own, heatedly defending his record on disasters in Iraq and at home and offering kindly advice to a successor who won largely because the nation ached for something new.
By turns wistful, aggressive and joking in his final news conference, Bush covered a huge range of topics in summing up his eight years in the White House — the latest in a recent string of efforts to have his say before historians have theirs. Then the White House said he would do it again tomorrow night in a final address to the nation.
Reaching back to his first day in office, he recalled walking into the White House and having “a moment” when he felt all the responsibilities of the job landing on his shoulders. President-elect Barack Obama will feel that next week, he said, his tone gently understanding.
Indeed, he was full of supportive words for Obama and talked of being deeply affected while watching people say on television that they never thought they would see the day the nation would elect a black president, many with “tears streaming down their cheeks when they said it.
“President-elect Obama’s election does speak volumes about how far this country has come when it comes to racial relations,” Bush said, seeming almost awe-struck.
He brushed off any suggestion that he’d found the job of president too burdensome — or that Obama would find it so.
“It’s just pathetic, isn’t it, self-pity?” he said. “And I don’t believe that president-elect Obama will be full of self-pity.”
At the same time, Bush showed his skin is not so thick as all that.
“Sometimes the biggest disappointments will come from your so-called friends,” he advised Obama.
Bush’s former press secretary, Scott McClellan, released a scathing tell-all book last year that still stings around the West Wing.
Asked one last time by reporters about the major controversies of his presidency, Bush had a ready answer for each.
On the dismal economy he leaves behind for Obama, Bush said: “I inherited a recession, I’m ending on a recession. In the meantime, there were 52 months of uninterrupted job growth.”
The 2001 recession began in March, two months into his presidency, but economists agree the seeds were sown long before.
Bush also defended himself against economic attacks from his own party on the huge government bailout of Wall Street financial firms.
He said, his voice rising: “If you were sitting there and heard that the depression could be greater than the Great Depression, I hope you would act, too, which I did.”
On the five-year-old Iraq war, the issue that will define his presidency, Bush said history will judge his actions but it is a fact that violence diminished and everyday life became more stable after his decision in 2007 to send an additional 30,000 US troops into the fight.
He vigorously took issue with critics of the federal response to Katrina, the hurricane that devastated New Orleans.
Gesturing and speaking with feeling, he said: “Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when there were 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. Has the reconstruction been perfect? No. Have things happened fairly quickly? Absolutely.”
The president claimed progress toward peace in the Middle East, though any hopes for an accord soon have been dashed by, among other things, a bruising offensive by Israel in the Gaza Strip.