Reflecting on His Tenure, Bush Shows New Candor

President Bush pointed to his global work on HIV/AIDS as a high point.
President Bush pointed to his global work on HIV/AIDS as a high point. (By Evan Vucci -- Associated Press)
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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 2, 2008

President Bush, who has long brushed aside questions about his legacy, is opening up a bit during his final weeks in office.

At the White House yesterday, for example, Bush called his program to combat HIV/AIDS "one of the most important initiatives of my administration" and praised it as a resounding success.

And in a separate television interview, the president was unusually blunt in identifying shortcomings during his tenure -- saying that his "biggest regret" was getting the intelligence wrong in Iraq, and conceding that he was not ready to be a wartime president when he first took office.

"I think I was unprepared for war," Bush said during the interview with ABC News, which was broadcast last night. "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. Presidents -- one of the things about the modern presidency is that the unexpected will happen."

The self-criticism is notable for a president who has long resisted looking back at his time in the White House and once was unable to provide an example of a mistake he had made in office. Since the election of President-elect Barack Obama on Nov. 4, however, Bush has appeared increasingly reflective and willing to discuss his legacy, joking about his "forced retirement" and telling the Chinese president that he "felt a bit nostalgic" during their final meeting as heads of state.

Bush also sat down last month for an interview with his sister Dorothy Bush Koch, as part of StoryCorps, an oral-history initiative by the Library of Congress. Bush and first lady Laura Bush talked at length about their time at the White House and, in the president's case, about his hopes for how he would be remembered. Among other things, Bush said, he wanted to be known "as somebody who liberated 50 million people and helped achieve peace."

The administration's HIV/AIDS initiative is a particular point of pride for Bush, who has received praise at home and abroad for his leadership on the issue. During a Washington forum yesterday that marked World AIDS Day, he said the program has surpassed expectations since 2003 by providing lifesaving antiretroviral treatments to more than 2 million adults and children worldwide.

"I would hope that when it's all said and done, people say, 'This is a guy who showed up to solve problems,' " Bush said at the forum. "And when you have somebody say there's a pandemic that you can help, and you do nothing about it, then you have frankly disgraced the office."

In the interview with ABC's Charles Gibson, Bush also admitted to errors and regrets in several key areas. He said he wished "the intelligence had been different" on Iraq but declined to speculate on whether he still would have decided to go to war. "That is a do-over that I can't do," he said.

Bush also said he regretted his failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform and "the fact that the tone in Washington got worse, not better" during his time in the White House.

Bush sidestepped a question about whether Obama's resounding election victory amounted to a personal repudiation. "I think it was a repudiation of Republicans," he said. "And I'm sure some people voted for Barack Obama because of me. I think most people voted for Barack Obama because they decided they wanted him to be in their living room for the next four years explaining policy."

Despite some second thoughts, Bush continued to express confidence in his overall course as president, even though three out of four Americans currently disagree. For example, Bush said he was "sorry" about the severe impact of the global financial crisis, but he deflected blame for the meltdown.

"You know, I'm president during this period of time, but I think when the history of this period is written, people will realize a lot of the decisions that were made on Wall Street took place over a decade or so, before I arrived," he said.

Not, he added, that he has any interest in what history will say.

"I'll be frank with you," Bush told Gibson. "I don't spend a lot of time really worrying about short-term history. I guess I don't worry about long-term history, either, since I'm not going to be around to read it."

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