Bush address defends tenure

President was 'willing to make tough decisions' in the nation's best interests

January 16, 2009|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,Tribune Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - President Bush, delivering a televised farewell to the nation last night, attempted to summon a collective sense of "gratitude" for years of safety following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, that shaped his presidency.

In a measure of the impact the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon had on his administration, Bush touted one signal success during his time in office: No further attacks occurred.

The president acknowledged that his anti-terror policies had prompted "legitimate debate." But, he said, "there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."

He also acknowledged "setbacks" in office that he did not detail.

"There are things I would do differently if given the chance," he said. "Yet, I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. ... You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."

Speaking from the East Room of the White House, Bush noted that he had first addressed the nation from the White House on Sept. 11, 2001.

"As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11," Bush said. "But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe."

The president's prime-time address, broadcast by television networks, marked his final planned public appearance before traveling to the Capitol Tuesday for the inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama.

He spoke not only to a television audience, but also to an invited audience that included his wife, Laura Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and relatives of Sept. 11 victims, including the mother of a police officer whose badge he said he still keeps.

It was one of several self-assessments that Bush has offered in recent days in interviews and in a news conference, efforts to shape perceptions of his controversial administration and its legacy.

Earlier this week, with his 47th and final planned news conference at the White House, Bush delivered a more critical assessment of his own record, acknowledging several "mistakes" and "disappointments."

In that appearance, the mistakes he cited included the "Mission Accomplished" banner strung across an aircraft carrier where he declared that major combat operations in Iraq had been completed shortly after the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003.

Bush also allowed that some of his "rhetoric was a mistake" - an allusion to tough talk about hunting down al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden "dead or alive." Bin Laden remains at large, and severe and continuing violence erupted in Iraq following his address on the aircraft carrier.

The abuse of American-held prisoners at the Abu Ghraib military prison in Iraq remained one of his disappointments, he said at the news conference, as did the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the then-stated premise for the ouster of Iraq's Saddam Hussein.

In the televised address, by contrast, Bush offered little sense of a confessional accounting to a public that largely has lost confidence in the president. His public approval ratings have hovered below 30 percent in his closing months in office.

"Even in the toughest times, we lift our eyes to the broad horizon ahead," Bush said with his trademark optimism. "I have confidence in the promise of America because I know the character of our people. This is a nation that inspires immigrants to risk everything for the dream of freedom. This is a nation where citizens show calm in times of danger and compassion in the face of suffering."

Acknowledging the popularity of his slated successor, the retiring president offered his own encouragement for Obama, who will be the first African-American to take the oath of office as president.

"Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose story reflects the enduring promise of our land," Bush said. "This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation. And I join all Americans in offering best wishes to President-elect Obama, his wife Michelle, and their two beautiful girls."

As for himself, Bush said: "It has been the privilege of a lifetime to serve as your president. There have been good days and tough days. But every day I have been inspired by the greatness of our country and uplifted by the goodness of our people."

Bush will travel today to Camp David for his final weekend at the mountain retreat in Western Maryland.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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