At 7:30 a.m. yesterday, my colleagues in the White House press corps and I received an e-mail from Press Secretary Dana Perino informing us that George W. Bush would hold his final press conference as President today. In what has been the pattern of the Bush press operation for the past eight years, the notice came precisely one hour and 45 minutes before the scheduled event. In what has been a pattern for me, I “turbo-dressed” and informed my office why I would be late.
There have been times I have played “musical chairs” in the back of the room to open seats for reporters who called in their reservation before I did. Other times, I had to stand. Not so today: it was easy to get a chair, as Dana’s assistant, Pete Seat, motioned other reporters in the back rows to move up and be “fillers” in the seats closer to the President.
In his final meeting with the press, President Bush was perfectly charming. To some of those with whom he has had a frosty relationship, Mr. Bush said, “I always respected you,” adding that those who covered him “do the best they possibly can,” and — in a slight backhand — noted that at times, the reporters “mis-underestimated me.”
He completely deferred to President-elect Obama on the issue of releasing the next installment of $350 billion in federal bailout funds. Bush does not intend to request the money from Congress unless Obama asks him to make that request before January 20 he told us. He warned of dangers in the Middle East:what you get, he said, when you have to deal with people “willing to murder to stop the advance of freedom.” He also warned that there is “an enemy out there that still wants to inflict damage on America” and “North Korea is still a problem.”
Probably setting off some bells among conservatives, the President did say that among fellow Republicans, “in the wake of defeat, the temptation will be to look inward.” He called on his party to be more inclusive and, as he did with me in our interview on January 6, revisited the “immigration debate and the image that came out of it [for Republicans].” Bush felt that fairly or unfairly, people said, “’Republicans don’t like immigrants’” and other demographic groups concluded the GOP didn’t like them as well.
In what he himself dubbed “the ultimate exit interview,” the 43rd President was at his best when reporters asked him to reflect upon his tenure. As for the harsh criticism and invective he dealt with, Mr. Bush said that he had read a lot about Abraham Lincoln and, as in his case, “in times of war, people get emotional. [But] that didn’t affect my policies.”
When Cheryl Stolberg of the New York Times, raised the issue of presidential pardons he might issue on the way out of the White House, the President’s response echoed what he had told me a week ago when he said: “I won’t be discussing pardons.”
Four years after telling a press conference he would not have done anything differently, but that it was a mistake to have the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln when he made his now-famous appearance there after the fall of Saddam, he said this morning that he has reflected on whether he should have flown into Baton Rouge after Hurricane Katrina (although that would have meant taking police away from protecting victims of the disaster, he added); and that it was a mistake to pursue Social Security reform after the ’04 election.
“The legislative branches tend to be risk adverse,” he said, and concluded he “should have argued for immigration reform instead.
He said he could have been more popular with people he calls “writers and opiners” by having us join the International Court or accepting the Kyoto Treaty. But, as he frequently says, the President does not do things because they will make him popular.
Although the President concluded that “I had my time in the klieg lights” and was moving on, he also told reporters that, as a “Type A personality,” it was not his style to sit back “with a Panama hat and a Hawaiian shirt” and simply retire. As sign of that, he warned of the growing trend toward protectionism in Congress with the failure of lawmakers to ratify three trade agreements he had pursued with foreign countries. Protectionism, he added, might be a topic for a seminar by him at Southern Methodist University.
Whether he was joshing with April Ryan of Urban Radio (“April, you were sound asleep back there”) or telling Suzanne Malveaux of CNN he had learned to pronounce her name right after eight years (“Su-zonnnn”), the President obviously enjoyed his “last hurrah” with those who had covered him and often sparred with him.
For all the last-minute notices of press conferences, the jostling for a seat, and that it was very often to difficult to get news-making information from President Bush, I found it a pleasure to be part of “the arena” that is the Brady Briefing Room. His sense of humor, occasional weaving and bobbing on the podium, and the give-and-take with reporters are memories I will cherish. I’m not sure what the new President and his press secretary will be like, but if there is in any way a continuing of the dog-and-pony show that the Bush White House had under four different spokesmen, I’m looking forward to it.