When my editor suggested months ago that I do an “exit interview” with President Bush before he leaves office, my response was: “What’s an exit interview?” The term was usually reserved for employees on their way out of one job and headed for another, not for a two-term President headed for retirement.
But after sitting down on January 6th with the 43rd President, I now have a full understanding of the “exit interview.” If daily reporting is the rough draft of history, an exit interview is sort of a second draft: an open discussion in which the outgoing commander-in-chief gives his side of what he did and did not do during his tenure in the White House.
What I found when we met in the Oval Office is a President who is a very different man from the national media’s portrait of him. He is clearly one who reads more — a lot more, in fact — that he is given credit for, and far more thoughtful about issues. By far the topic that motivates him the most is his role in spreading freedom in the world. In listing that as one of his greatest accomplishments in office, Mr. Bush spoke with unusual passion of “the universality of freedom as the gift of the Almighty to every man, woman, and child.”
Bush is also far different one-on-one than he has been at press conferences I had covered. At these sessions, Mr. Bush was uncomfortable, and at times hostile. On one occasion, my colleague Peter Baker of the Washington Post was pressing a topic Mr. Bush was uncomfortable in addressing. He tersely admonished Peter no less than three times: “I’m not going to talk about it.” Other times, he has simply scoffed when asked questions he did not like from the conclave of White House correspondents.
Not so in our private session. Whether the topic was the growth of government spending during his years in office or disappointment with Russian Premier Vladimir Putin (“He has changed in a way”) or his two appointees to the Supreme Court (“[They] will stand the test of time”), President Bush gave detailed answers. When he noticed I was nervously eyeing the grandfather clock behind him during one of his lengthier replies, he assured me: “I’m not going to filibuster.”
The only time Mr. Bush came close to being curt was when I asked if he had thought about pardoning Ramos and Compean, the two border patrolmen sentenced to ten years in prison for shooting a drug dealer who was an illegal alien. Rather sharply, he replied: “I’m not talking about pardons.” (When we were alone, Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel told me that this was Bush’s standard answer when asked about I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, or anyone mentioned for a presidential pardon or commutation).
Pressing All the Right Buttons, But. . .
But Bush “pressed all the right buttons” with conservatives when he answered my opening question as to his greatest achievements. Along with his pride in demonstrating “cutting taxes worked,” the President brought up his two Supreme Court nominees and his “promotion of a culture of life” — achievements some critics on the right complain he trumpets too infrequently. He also voiced the opinion that the incoming Obama Administration will not “raise taxes on small businesses, which is what you would be doing if you raise the upper rate.”
This is all rich fodder for conservatives.
On other topics, the President inarguably has his opinion and many conservatives have another. He made his case as to why one is not going to have small government when at war. Mr. Bush maintained that this “means you’re scrimping on people that you’ve been counting on to support you.” True, but in World War II, there was nonetheless a major slashing of domestic spending in order to back the people we were counting on in combat. F.D.R. declared that “Dr. New Deal” had to retire in favor of “Dr. Win the War” and Congress created a Committee on Unnecessary Expenditures to pencil out numerous domestic programs in favor of a war economy. This was never done under Bush and the Republican-run House and Senate.
Mr. Bush also insisted that the Prescription Drug Program (which was enacted in ’03 by two votes in the House after considerable White House arm-twisting) was “part of Medicare,” rather than the biggest entitlement since Medicare itself was born four decades earlier. Moreover, when he explained that failure of government to bail out the financial and automobile industries last year would have spelled economic collapse “greater than the Great Depression,” Mr. Bush cited “major financial advisors” as the source for that opinion.
When I asked if these “advisors” were his advisors, he said “My advisors.” There are definitely second opinions in the economic community on whether the refusal of government to rescue Wall Street and the automakers would have triggered a Greater Depression. About the same time Mr. Bush was telling me this, economists Lawrence Lindsey (who was fired as a Bush economic advisor in ’03) and Martin Feldstein were saying just the opposite on a panel in Washington.
Overall, I found George W. Bush to be relaxed, self-assured, and having no regrets save that “I didn’t get to appoint another justice to the Supreme Court.” Since our interview, many have asked how he sees his legacy. His frequent references to spreading democracy, as his discussing his friendship with former Japanese Premier Koizumi a generation after their fathers were enemies in World War II, convinced me that this is how President Bush hopes history will eventually judge him: a peacemaker who could see things in the longer term.
This, of course, will be determined by what eventually happens in Iraq and Afghanistan and whether their fledgling democracies grow stronger. It won’t be decided for a while.
What was initially intended to be a twenty-minute exchange in the Oval Office turned into nearly forty minutes of discussion between George W. Bush and me. Spokesman Stanzel and White House Communications Director Craig Sullivan quietly took notes on our exchange, both hanging a bit nervously on some of the answers. The only other person in the room was a gentleman with a microphone to record the official transcript; if something went wrong with my recorder, Mr. Bush assured me, “he’ll get it all. He falls asleep sometimes, but I think he’ll stay awake for this interview.”
As he graciously signed notes to family and friends for me, the President indicated a photograph behind his desk of his grandparents, Sen. Prescott Bush (R.-Conn.) and wife Dorothy. It was taken, he explained, on the evening the senator was re-elected in 1956. When I asked why his grandfather did not run again in 1962, the President told me: “He was a tough old bird, but after a while, his health was a little less certain and he just decided he had had enough of it. That can happen in politics. You know what I mean.”