President Bush: The Exit Interview

After five years of covering the Bush White House, I finally sat down Tuesday (January 6th) afternoon with George W. Bush for one of the last interviews he will give before he leaves office January 20th.

“Hey, Big John,” is how the President welcomed me into the Oval Office. We briefly discussed my wife’s sisters and my parents, whom he had graciously greeted at past events in the White House. After inviting me to sit down in the chair that visiting world leaders sit in when they meet him (“You’re where the Sudanese official was yesterday”) and encouraging me to pose for photographs “just like you’re a world leader,” Mr. Bush proceeded to answer questions for the next half-hour.

We covered considerable ground, from what he feels are his greatest accomplishments (“I have worked with a lot of good people to defend the homeland”) to his response to charges that he has abandoned the spending issue by not vetoing enough legislation. He also offered a spirited defense of the financial bailouts of Wall Street and the automakers that so many of his fellow Republicans now denounce. Speaking of Wall Street financiers, Bush told me, “My instincts were, right off the bat, let them fail. These guys made lousy decisions — ‘these guys’ being Wall Street — let them fail.” But after his financial advisors told him “everything was so intertwinded at this point in time” that failure to help could cause a depression “greater than the Great Depression,” the President decided to act and support the bailouts.

He was resolute in his promotion of democracy worldwide, saying “the only way to eventually marginalize the radical ideology of the enemy is to give people a chance to live in a hopeful society.” Even when Hamas won elections in the Palestinian Directorate, Bush maintained, their victory was about “good health and education” and not about war. “Now Hamas has also shown its true colors because they have mismanaged Gaza,” he said, adding that “democracy does not happen instantly.”

Of world leaders he admired, he cited former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi because “they wouldn’t tell you one thing and do something else.” Bush did see Russia’s Vladimir Putin “change in a way,” but he added that “our personal relationship is fine” and the two agree Iran should not have a nuclear weapon.
On calling for alternative energy, his efforts to enact drilling in the Arctic Natural Wildlife Reserve, the President remained firm that he has taken the right course. Of criticism from Al Gore and others for criticism that he has not done enough to lessen the manufacture of greenhouse gases, the President said, “One of the disappointments in Washington is name-calling.” He voiced pride in his appointments of Supreme Court Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito and added “I wish I had had an opportunity to name another Supreme Court justice.” He’s “not talking pardons” before he finally leaves the White House and urges President-elect Obama to “enjoy yourself as President.”

Here is the transcript of our interview:

John Gizzi: Conservatives are divided sometimes in their assessment of your presidency. What do you think are your greatest achievements?

President Bush: I think that — first of all, I have worked with a lot of good people to defend the homeland. Secondly, I have put strategies in place that keep the pressure on the enemy and, at the same time, spreads freedom as the alternative to tyranny.

Conservatives I hope understand the universality of — the doctrine of the universality of freedom. I like to put it, there is a Almighty, and a gift of that Almighty to every man, woman and child is freedom. And that it is the advance of freedom, that universal principle, which will ultimately marginalize and allow to wither a radicalism that is prevalent in today’s world.

Another success has been to prove that cutting taxes worked. The problem with this current economic meltdown is that it has obscured the fact that tax cuts were effective during my presidency. We had 52 months of uninterrupted job growth — that was a record. And obviously today it’s hard for anybody to be thinking about that record. But eventually, when historians look back at this period, they will see that tax cuts helped pull us out of recession and deal with the September the 11th attacks.

My judicial nominees will stand the test of time. My promotion of a culture of life, which I have been a consistent advocate of, on the understanding that a society that treats the most vulnerable and the weak in a — let me just rephrase it — a society that does not honor the most vulnerable and the weak is a society that needs to reassess its value system. We have worked to protect the vulnerable and the weak, and there’s nothing more vulnerable than an unborn child.

So there’s a variety of issues that I can say that I have come with a set of principles; I have done what I said I was going to do; I have tried to lead with integrity and honor; and I go home with my head held high, knowing I did not sacrifice my soul for the sake of short-term popularity.

Gizzi: Let’s take everything you said one at a time. Tax cuts — do you still believe they should be permanent?

Bush: I do.

Gizzi: Do you feel vindicated President-Elect Obama appears to be backing off about eliminating the tax rate on the so-called rich?

Bush: Well, I hope what they have done is they’ve assessed the economic situation and realize that if you raise taxes on small businesses — which you would be doing if you raise the upper tax rate — that you’d be making it harder for the economy to recover.

Secondly, I would hope that they understand the positive effects of cutting capital gains and dividend tax rates. But the tax cuts were important then; they are still important because the more money people have in their own pocket, the more likely it is that this economy will recover quicker.

Gizzi: Every time I go to a Republican meeting, just like the RNC meetings, so many people in recent years said they agree with you on tax cuts, but we’ve lost the spending and smaller government issue. Do you wish you had vetoed more and earlier?

Bush: Actually, I would take exception with their analysis of the spending issue — for these reasons, John.

First, when we got kids in harm’s way wearing the uniform of the United States military, I will spend what it takes to make sure they’re well equipped, their families are well supported, and that this volunteer army thrives. And our record has been very strong about supporting families and vets. See, I think we have a special obligation to provide for our military, and we did. And it cost money, because we’re fighting a war against terror on two fronts at the same time.

Secondly, a lot of our kids came home wounded. And I, no question about it, made sure that the health care was as good as possible and that the remedy for their wounds was as good as possible.

Thirdly, we did spend a lot of money on protecting this homeland, and people forget what it was like right after the attacks and the worries that this country had. And we addressed a lot of vulnerabilities. And fourthly, on non-discretionary, non-defense spending, we actually reduced spending.

And so we’ve had a strong record. And not only that, but prior to this current economic situation, we were growing — we were shrinking the deficit while spending money on priorities.

You’re not going to have small government when you’re at war, because it means that you’re crimping on the people that you’re counting on to support you. Now, maybe some say there is no war, or maybe they’re saying we shouldn’t be fighting the war, and therefore they — if that’s the case, then they can make their argument we shouldn’t be spending on the military. But I think there’s a war, and it’s a war we need to fight, and therefore I’m going to make sure the military has what it needs in terms of equipment, manpower and support for their families.

The other big issue, the spending issue that — and I’m not going to filibuster —

Gizzi: Go ahead.

Bush: The other big spending issue, though, and the one that ought to be troubling conservatives, as well as anybody else in America, is the unfunded liabilities inherent in Social Security and Medicare. And I’m the only President who stood in front of Congress and put a detailed proposal out to help deal with the unfunded liabilities on Social Security, and at the same time, proposed a change in how the Social Security system is structured. I argued for defined contributions versus defined benefits to a certain extent. The choice of the Social Security recipient is that — in other words, it’s your choice to make if you want to be a part of a personal savings account — all aiming to encourage ownership in our society.

Gizzi: All right. That’s a good point. The prescription drug bill was passed at a time when we were already at war. I covered the debate; I remember how hard you worked well into the evening on it.

Bush: Yes, I did.

Gizzi: Do you still support passing the largest entitlement since Medicare while we were at war?

Bush: Well, first of all, it is a part of Medicare. In other words, the first argument that — the threshold argument is, should the government be funding Medicare at all? I came to the conclusion, yes; it’s a commitment we’ve made to seniors, and we ought to continue that commitment. If you’re funding Medicare, don’t you want to make sure it’s a modern system? And the problem I faced, John, was that I was looking at Medicare, and we would pay $40,000 for the surgery and not a dime for the prescription drugs that would cause the surgery from not being needed in the first place.

Secondly, I knew that Medicare — and all medicine, for that matter — needed to have competition as a part of its core in order to help with quality and price, and therefore argued that we ought to modernize Medicare and create competition for consumers’ business, which is precisely what the prescription drugs did.

The cost of the prescription drug program is, no question, costly, but substantially less than was initially anticipated, because competition for the first time has been introduced in a government system.

And so I am — I believe we did the right thing then, and I believe we did the right thing today.

Gizzi: Turning to the financial bailouts recently of the automakers, as well as Wall Street, you told CNN, "I’ve abandoned free market principles to save the free market system."


How do you envision that the free market system will be reestablished, and how soon?

Bush: I can understand people’s concerns that this government intervention, in order to save the system in the first place, could undermine free enterprise, free trade, free markets. I know that, I hear that, I share the same concerns.

On the other hand, you got to look at it from my perspective. I’m told by major financial advisors that, Mr. President — this is last fall — Mr. President, if you do not do something substantial, we could be in a depression greater than the Great Depression, and that caught my attention.

Gizzi: These are your advisors.

Bush: My advisors. My instincts, right off the bat, were, let them fail. These guys made lousy decisions — "these guys" being Wall Street — let them fail. But I am told that everything was so intertwined at this point in time, and interconnected, that failure could cause this country to go into a depression greater than the Great Depression, and I was not going to let that happen, John.

And so I did abandon the principles that I told people that were in my heart, in order to deal with a significant problem, and will work hard after my presidency to continue to articulate the benefits of free markets, and that once our paper has been redeemed by the assets that back it, as this economy recovers, you know, a lot of the monies we’ve invested — which are backed by assets — will be sold back into the private sector, and I will continue to argue for low taxes, less regulation. But there are some who worry that we’ll never be able to unwind ourselves from this position. I agree that they ought to be concerned, and that’s what campaigns ought to be about in the future.

Gizzi: So you’re not putting a time table on when the free market system will come back?

Bush: Well, I think the free market system — first of all, there is still a free market system. It’s just that the government is now heavily involved in the free market system, and we just got to make sure that the government’s involvement in the free market system does not lead to more government involvement. And we have structured, for example, the bank loans in a way that provides incentives for banks to repay with interest the money they got from the federal government, and then the government ends up with warranties, which — you know, our whole purpose was to put in a place a strategy that said, it is likely your money will come back; we achieved the objective of saving the economy, and it’s likely we’ll get most of the money back.

Gizzi: Turning to your foreign policy statement and promotion of freedom, you certainly have talked about that a lot, having said during the 2000 campaign you were not wed to nation-building —

Bush: Correct.

Gizzi: — and now you promote democracy around the world. You’ve cited Afghanistan and Iraq as examples of that. That came after U.S. intervention and a continuing U.S. presence, albeit one that’s diminished in some cases. None of the modern Arab nations appear to be democratic, and Hamas actually came to power through democratic means. That said, do you still fully support promotion of democracy?

Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. The only way to eventually marginalize the radical ideology of the enemy is to give people a chance to live in a hopeful society. Let me — a couple of points I want to make. One, I said the military should not be used for nation-building as a — I was asked, should the military be used for nation-building? I said, no.

I wasn’t anticipating, however, the need to remove two tyrannical regimes. After the removal of the regimes, I had a choice to make: Do you replace one strongman with a friendly strongman, or do you replace a tyrannical regime with a democracy? I chose the latter because I know that we’re in an ideological struggle. If you’re in an ideological struggle, then you’ve got to continue to articulate and promote the ideology that is most likely to prevail, which is democracy and freedom.

Secondly, yes, I’m for elections. And guess what the elections were about Hamas? First of all, the election —

Gizzi: Reform. Reform.

Exactly. It wasn’t war. They said — and it was a message to Fatah — who, by the way, I had had troubles with because of Mr. Arafat. And in essence what the elections did was put a exclamation point on this statement: We are tired of corruption and we want to see good health and education. That’s what Hamas campaigned on. It was a moment of truth. Elections are truthful. They tell you what the people want.

Now, Hamas has also shown its true colors because they have mismanaged Gaza. And instead of bringing reform and good health care, they have brought war, because they have used Gaza as a place from which to launch rockets into Israel. And Israel’s response — it makes a lot of sense to a lot of people, including me — they should not have to live with a rocket-launching group of people in their neighborhood.

And so — yes, and there are — look, democracy does not happen instantly, but there are — there’s new women’s movements in the Middle East, there’s more transparency in the Middle East. There is more — you know, in some cases, inching toward democracy, in some cases crawling toward democracy, and in some cases sprinting toward democracy — and that would be Iraq.

Thanks to you, I’ve gotten to see a lot of the world leaders come to the White House. What world leader changed the most that you knew in your time in office?

Bush: Whew, you know, the ones that I admire the most are the ones that didn’t change, they were consistent throughout; they wouldn’t tell you one thing and do something else.

Gizzi: Such as?

Bush: Well, Tony Blair was a great world leader and a close friend, because he is consistent. He saw the threats, he saw the power of the transformative power of democracy. You know, another great example I use is Koizumi, Prime Minister — then-Prime Minister Koizumi, who — I found it so ironic that he and I became partners in peace through the spread of liberty. And what was ironic about it is my dad and his dad were enemies. Dad fought the Japanese in the ’40s, and his father was a part of the Japanese government that attacked America.

Gizzi: The war cabinet.

Bush: Yes. And yet the two sons are working for peace. And it is a vivid example of the transformative power of liberty to help change an enemy into an ally. See, when you talk — when you think about the Middle East and think about the freedom movement — and I want your readers to think about this — what would have happened in the late ’40s if an American President said: I predict that some day Japan and the United States will walk arm in arm down the road to peace, and work arm in arm to defeat a common enemy? They would have said, forget it, who are you kidding? This country — you know, we just fought them; they killed our kids. Nobody would have — you know, they said, well, maybe — what an idealistic dude. They would have been, you know, is it possible? Of course it’s possible. Well, everybody would have written the guy off right after World War Two.

But that’s what happened. I’m predicting to you that if the United States continues to stay in the lead and promotes democracy and works in a smart way, liberty will be transformative in the Middle East.

Gizzi: Along those lines, were you disappointed in Prime Minister Putin after your time in office?

Bush: You know, look, I’ve seen him change in a way. In other words, he and I always had a good relationship, so our personal relationship is fine. But I saw him — you know, there’s a lot of suspicion about America in the Russian system. For example, he looked at our missile defense proposals for Europe as something aimed at Russia. I kept trying to tell him, it’s not aimed at you, it’s aimed at rogue regimes that might want to launch a single rocket. But I was disappointed that we weren’t able to have, on that issue, for example, you know, find better common ground; although if you look at the statement after our meeting in Kennebunkport, it was very positive.

On the other hand, we did find common ground in dealing with Iran. He understands Iran shouldn’t have a nuclear weapon, just like we understand Iran shouldn’t have a nuclear weapon.

Gizzi: Turning back to the domestic front, former Vice President Al Gore and others have called you names, and said you haven’t done enough to lessen the manufacture of greenhouse gases.

Bush: Yes.

Gizzi: The fact is the Earth is actually cooler as you leave office than when you took office. What is your take on manmade global warming, and what should be done about it?

Bush: Well, first of all, one of the disappointments in Washington is name-calling. I have not called people names. I don’t think the President ought to be engaged in name-calling. And I find those that call names really are ones that just resort to — rather than trying to use logic, slip into this habit. And I’m just — you know, it’s just the way it is in Washington, sadly enough.

One, I think there’s enough evidence we ought to take the issue seriously. But I also recognize that you cannot solve environmental issues without having a growing economy, because the solution to environmental issues, like the solution to energy independence issues, is technology, and you’ve got to be wealthy to promote new technologies.

And this administration has been actively promoting new technologies, as well as recognizing this reality: that if you want to have economic growth and you want to have clean air, then promote civilian nuclear power, and not fight civilian nuclear power, like some in the environmental movement have done.

Gizzi: So you have no regrets about your statement that we’re addicted to oil, and should look at alternative sources?

Bush: No, none at all. As a matter of fact, I am concerned about the dependence on 60 percent of our energy coming from overseas. And the reason I’m concerned about that is that even though it’s hard to tell it now, when supply and demand tighten up again, or supplies tighten up relative to demand and that price starts going back up again, all it takes with tight supplies is a disruption by a terrorist organization, and we’re facing really high energy prices. And secondly, dependence on foreign oil makes us dependent on some nations that just don’t like us. And therefore, that puts a national security strain in the White House based upon supply.

So I definitely think so now, I’m realistic about how to diversify. I think — first of all, we do use less oil than, per unit of output, than we did years ago. We’re learning to be good conservationists. But I think you’re going to find technology changing a lot of things. For example, I think you’ll find us using hybrid battery-powered automobiles. And the first 40 miles will be on electricity, for example, in a cost effective way. I think that day is coming. And that in itself will make us less dependent on oil.

Gizzi: With that said, I covered the debate on ANWR. And I know a lot of people thought you could have done more, like go to Alaska, for example, or work Congress the way you did on prescription drugs.

Bush: No, I worked Congress hard on ANWR. But ANWR was a public — that was the single biggest issue for the environmental movement, which is very strong here in Washington, D.C., and it became a litmus test vote. Every year I talked about ANWR. We pushed hard on ANWR. We did get offshore drilling changed. And I’m disappointed we didn’t get ANWR. It made no sense to me not to be drilling in ANWR.

Gizzi: Did you ever consider going to Alaska to see ANWR?

Bush: You mean photo op, you know, promotion? Yes, I’m sure we did. Yes, I think we considered it. I don’t know — it would have been interesting, but I don’t think it would have affected the politics in Washington, D.C., because people, certain people, have made this the litmus test issue. So if you vote for ANWR, then you don’t care about the environment. And the irony is, is that technology is such that you protect the environment and drill in ANWR.

Gizzi: One final question — two final questions on your judicial appointments you mentioned. You’re very proud of John Roberts and of Justice Alito coming in. Someone said that unlike Justices Scalia and Thomas, whom you expressed admiration for, they vote more with business, such as in the Exxon Valdez case, and limits on cases. Is this something you’ve noticed?

Bush: I haven’t heard that. That’s interesting. No, I haven’t noticed that. I have noticed that they have been constructionists, strict constructionists, and that they don’t see the Constitution as a living document, but as a document that stands the test of time. And that they view their government, their branch of government as one not to write law, but to interpret the laws written by the legislative branch and signed by the executive branch.

Gizzi: Do you wish that you had the opportunity to name Al Gonzales and Harriet Miers as well?

Bush: I wish I had an opportunity to name another Supreme Court Justice, but I didn’t, I got to name two.

Gizzi: Right. Any names on who you would have named?

Bush: No, that’s one of these hypotheticals, John, that — whoever it would have been would have been — would have had a consistent judicial philosophy.

Gizzi: The last time I was with Tony Snow, he — the last time we had a series discussion was at the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, and he said the Republican Party missed a very big opportunity not passing the comprehensive package that you supported. And is that a regret? And —

Well, I’m sorry it didn’t pass, because I felt strongly that the comprehensive approach to immigration reform was necessary for border enforcement, as well as recognizing that there are people willing to do work Americans won’t do. And this issue will — without the law, by the way, we did put fence up, and the border is becoming more secure. People are now recognizing the truth that there are fewer crossings, and we’ve ended the catch and release and issues like that.

But I still strongly believe that there needs to be a rational approach to immigration reform. I don’t like it when the law is so antiquated that people who are willing to do hard work become contraband, they get stuffed in the bottom of 18-wheelers in order to come and do a job that others aren’t willing to do. I don’t think that’s right. I think we ought to recognize that we can do a better job of achieving border security, and treating people with dignity at the same time.

Gizzi: Last thing. Are you going to pardon Ramos and Compean? Are you talking with them?

Bush: I’m not talking pardons.

Gizzi: All right. And what advice do you give President-Elect Obama?

Bush: My advice is, enjoy yourself as President.