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On a Farewell Tour of Sorts, Bush Reflects on His Successes, Errors

In recent interviews and appearances, President Bush has highlighted his favorite programs.
In recent interviews and appearances, President Bush has highlighted his favorite programs. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)

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By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 6, 2008

George W. Bush is not generally prone to introspection. "I really do not feel comfortable in the role of analyzing myself," he once said.

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But with only weeks left in his presidency, the self-analysis has begun. After a year of relentless criticism from both parties, the departing president has embarked on a valedictory tour, touting his record in television interviews and public appearances while admitting, with some hesitation, that things did not always go as planned.

Bush asserts success in combating AIDS in Africa, preventing new terrorist attacks on U.S. soil and snatching a measure of victory in Iraq. And in a speech on the Middle East yesterday, the president sketched out a strikingly optimistic portrait of a region that has embroiled the United States in war and conflict for the past eight years.

"The Middle East in 2008 is a freer, more hopeful and more promising place than it was in 2001," he said at the Saban Forum in Washington.

Bush has also been notably open in recent weeks about his low popularity, his reliance on religious faith and his keen desire to steal away from the limelight after Jan. 20. He has admitted to a few previously unacknowledged errors, telling one interviewer that he was "unprepared for war" when he entered office and that his "biggest regret" was the failure of intelligence leading up to the Iraq invasion.

Yet even those remarks underscore Bush's enduring confidence in the path he charted through two wars, a major natural disaster and a global economic meltdown. While conceding faulty intelligence before the Iraq war, he declines to say whether he would have acted differently. While saying he is "sorry" for the economic crisis, he says most of the problems began before he took office.

And Bush shies away from one of the most damaging episodes of his tenure: the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The storm left thousands stranded in a drowning New Orleans, setting Bush on course to become the least popular U.S. president in modern history.

"There is a natural inclination among all presidents to focus on accomplishments," said Norman J. Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. "But here you have a president in George Bush who hates to admit mistakes, who hates to admit errors, and that is something that has been a basic problem for him."

For Bush, to be unyielding is a matter of principle. "The thing that's important for me is to get home and look in that mirror and say, 'I did not compromise my principles,' " Bush said in an interview with ABC News. "And I didn't. I made tough calls. And some presidencies have got a lot of tough decisions to make."

The campaign to burnish Bush's legacy follows the Nov. 4 victories by President-elect Barack Obama and other Democrats, who made condemnation of Bush's policies the centerpiece of their campaigns. About two months ago, White House counselor Ed Gillespie began meeting with agency heads as part of an effort aimed at compiling the major accomplishments of the Bush administration.

The campaign so far has included a series of television interviews, speeches and other appearances in recent weeks focused on some of Bush's favorite programs, such as initiatives to provide HIV/AIDS medicine to the developing world and to include faith-based groups in federal assistance programs. Still to come are events focused on the No Child Left Behind Act, the bipartisan education reform package approved during his first term, according to aides.

"We have looked to opportunities for the president to be able to talk about some of his legacy items, some things that he will be remembered for," White House press secretary Dana Perino said this week.


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