On His Way Out, Where Some See Mistakes, Bush Sees Disappointments

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"This is the ultimate exit interview," President Bush told the White House press corps yesterday as he faced it for a final time in the briefing room.

And the interviewee had come with well-rehearsed lines for any question his interviewers could devise.

The worst economy since Herbert Hoover? "Look, I inherited a recession," Bush replied. "This problem started before my presidency."

The government's poor response to Hurricane Katrina? "Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed."

The badly executed Iraq occupation? "Hard things don't happen overnight."

The decline of American prestige? "I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged," Bush answered, proposing that the questioner "Go to Africa. . . . Go to India. . . . Go to China and ask."

By the time he finished, it was hard to imagine why only 23 percent of Americans are able to see the Bush years for the unqualified success that they are. "I thank you for giving me a chance to defend a record that I am going to continue to defend, because I think it's a good, strong record," the president declared.

With seven days left until he surrenders power, Bush will have to do a heck of a sales job to convince the nation of this. Further complicating his last-minute legacy rehabilitation: Nobody seems to be paying attention. The White House had high expectations for yesterday's final, historic news conference. "ONE CORRESPONDENT PER ORGANIZATION," proclaimed the bulletin sent to reporters. "STANDING ROOM ONLY FOR NON-SEAT HOLDERS." But when the appointed hour of 9:15 a.m. arrived, the last two rows in the seven-row briefing room were empty, and a press aide told White House interns to fill those seats.

In his own way, the outgoing president acknowledged that the past five years have, by many measures, been one long pratfall. But he spoke as though he were an innocent bystander, watching the mishaps rather than having any culpability for them. To Bush, they were not mistakes -- just disappointments. "Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency," he said. "Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment -- I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but, they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way."

Same thing with the failure to pass three free-trade agreements. "A disappointment -- not a mistake, but a disappointment -- was not getting the three trade bills out of Congress on Colombia, Panama and South Korea," he allowed.

And all that nastiness in politics. "I am disappointed by the tone in Washington, D.C.," he said. "It's just the rhetoric got out of control at times."

"Why?" asked ABC News's Ann Compton.

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