Sunday, January 11, 2009

Bush admits to uncertainty about future as private citizen

At the White House, President George W. Bush gives an interview with reporters from Texas news organizations, from left, Rick Dunham, Dave Montgomery of the Star-Telegram, Gary Martin and Ken Herman.   White House/Eric Draper
White House/Eric Draper
At the White House, President George W. Bush gives an interview with reporters from Texas news organizations, from left, Rick Dunham, Dave Montgomery of the Star-Telegram, Gary Martin and Ken Herman. White House/Eric Draper

WASHINGTON — Less than two weeks before he puts an "ex-" in front of his title and relinquishes the White House to Barack Obama, President George W. Bush acknowledges feeling a bit uncertain as he looks toward life as a private citizen back in Texas.

"At 8 a.m., the CIA is in here giving me a briefing on world events," the 43rd president said in the Oval Office on Friday. "I don’t know what it’s going to be like to wake up on the morning of the 21st of January and not have somebody come here and say, 'This is the way the world looks today, Mr. President.’ "

In an interview with four Texas news organizations, including the Star-Telegram, the former Texas governor reflected on his often-turbulent eight years as president and contemplated the more tranquil life that awaits him and first lady Laura Bush after his Democratic successor takes office Jan. 20.

The Bushes will move into a $2 million, 8,500-square-foot home in Dallas that the first lady selected and that Bush has yet to see. "They say it’s a beauty," Bush joked.

Their ranch in Crawford, where the president conducted working vacations, will serve as a second home, though Bush said he and Laura will spend most of their time in Dallas.

Bush said he plans to give speeches and write his memoirs, a book that he said will provide insight into his presidential decision-making. He also plans to devote much of his attention to his future presidential library at Southern Methodist University.

"The main thing I’ve got to be anxious about is whether or not I’m going to find enough to keep this Type A personality from getting restless," he said.

Bush says that after more than 14 years in public service, including his stint as governor and eight years in what he called the White House "bubble," he may at last be free to stroll around the neighborhood or shop for groceries. But even that will take some adjustment.

"Initially, it’s going to be a surprise for people to see ex-President Bush walking around the grocery store," Bush said. "Hopefully, after a while, the new will wear off."

One thing he says he did not expect and will not miss about Washington is its harsh political rhetoric and "name-calling." He also called on Republicans to refrain from strident attacks on Obama as he assumes the presidency.

Bush seemed relaxed and joked with reporters as he talked about his "retirement." He recalled his first impressions of the White House and the anticipation of becoming president after his contested victory over Al Gore in 2000.

"I remember heading up to Washington to get sworn in," he said. "I was ready to do the job, but you never really know what it’s like to be president until you actually step in the Oval Office as the president."

Bush’s popularity soared after 9-11.

But over the years, his approval ratings plummeted as the nation dealt with two wars and an economic downturn. He will leave office as one of modern history’s most unpopular presidents.

Citing accomplishments

Nevertheless, the outgoing Republican president said he believes that his record includes numerous successes, including tax cuts, the No Child Left Behind legislation to strengthen public schools and Medicaid reform. He also cited a record 52 uninterrupted months of job creation before the economy weakened.

"We’ll let history be the judge, but I . . . will tell you this: I have a great sense of accomplishment, and I am going home with my head held high."

Bush said the seeds of the economic crisis "started before my watch," and he defended billions of dollars in government bailouts as a bold move that has prevented a further economic meltdown.

Measures his administration implemented after 9-11 have helped prevent another terrorist attack against the United States, Bush said. The president acknowledged that Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 2001 attacks, remains at large but predicted that he will be caught and brought to justice.

Looking back, Bush also acknowledged mistakes, including the "Mission Accomplished" banner that gave the false impression that the Iraqi insurgency had ended.

He also regrets the failure of his immigration overhaul initiative and said he might have had a better chance at getting the bill passed if he had submitted it to Congress just after his 2004 re-election, when his political capital was at its peak.

Bush said he will miss the creature comforts of White House life, the flights on Air Force One and the friendships he and the first lady made with their staff. Perhaps most of all, he said, he will miss "the men and women in uniform" whom he came to know while commander in chief.

"I have seen them in the battlefield. I have seen them in hospitals. I have met with the families of the fallen . . . and I am in awe of the men and women who serve," he said.

With Bush’s return to his home state, Texas will become home to father and son ex-presidents, apparently a historical first. Former President George H.W. Bush lives in Houston and has a presidential library at Texas A&M.

Father-son rapport

The younger Bush said he reached out to his father while president — but not for official advice. "When I called him, it was either to hear him say, 'I love you, son,’ or for me to say: 'Hey, Dad, don’t worry about it. I’m doing fine.’ "

His father also told him what he should expect after leaving office.

"He was talking about how there will be a lot of interest initially about what his life was like after the presidency and then you just fade out," Bush said. "That’s fine with me. The faster the fade, the better."

David Montgomery covered President George W. Bush as Star-Telegram Washington bureau chief and has just returned to Texas as Austin bureau chief.

DAVE MONTGOMERY, 512-476-4294

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