WASHINGTON — By turns wistful, aggressive and joking in the final news conference of his presidency, President George W. Bush vigorously defended his record Monday but also offered an extraordinary listing of his mistakes — including his optimistic Iraq speech before a giant "Mission Accomplished" banner in 2003.
After starting what he called "the ultimate exit interview" with a lengthy and personalized thank-you to the reporters in the room who have covered him over the eight years of his presidency, Bush showed anger at times when presented with some of the main criticisms of his time in office.
"I think it's a good, strong record," he said. "You know, presidents can try to avoid hard decisions and therefore avoid controversy. That's just not my nature."
He particularly became indignant when asked about America's bruised image overseas.
"I disagree with this assessment that, you know, that people view America in a dim light," he said. "It may be damaged amongst some of the elite. But people still understand America stands for freedom."
Bush said he realizes that some issues such as the prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have created controversy at home and around the world. But he defended his actions after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, including approving tough interrogation methods for suspected terrorists and information-gathering efforts at home in the name of protecting the country.
With the Iraq war in its sixth year, he most aggressively defended his decisions on that issue, which will define his presidency like no other. There have been over 4,000 U.S. deaths since the invasion and toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
But it was in that area that he also acknowledged mistakes. He said that "not finding weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment." The accusation that Saddam had and was pursuing weapons of mass destruction was Bush's main initial justification for going to war.
He also cited the abuses found to have been committed by members of the U.S. military at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq as "a huge disappointment."
"I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but they were — things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way," Bush said.
And he admitted another miscalculation: Eager to report quick progress after U.S. troops ousted Saddam's government, he declared less than two months after the war started that "in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," a claim made under a "Mission Accomplished" banner that turned out to be wildly optimistic. "Clearly, putting 'Mission Accomplished' on an aircraft carrier was a mistake," he said Monday. "It sent the wrong message."
He also defended his decision in 2007 to send an additional 30,000 American troops to Iraq to knock down violence levels and stabilize life there.
"The question is, in the long run, will this democracy survive, and that's going to be a question for future presidents," he said.
On another issue destined to figure prominently in his legacy, Bush said he has "thought long and hard about Katrina — you know could I have done something differently, like land Air Force One either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge." Bush was criticized for flying over the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and waiting until four days after it hit to visit the scene.
But he also said he disagrees with those who say the federal response to the storm was slow.
"Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there were 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. ... Could things been done better? Absolutely. But when I hear people say the federal response was slow, what are they going to say to those chopper drivers or the 30,000 who got pulled off the roof?" he said.
He also defended his record on Mideast peace.
A bruising offensive by Israel in the Gaza Strip has dashed any slight hopes for an accord soon that produces a Palestinian state. But Bush, asked why peace hasn't been achieved, said his administration had made progress. He said he had laid out the vision for "what peace would look like" and got all sides to agree on a two-state solution to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
"It's been a long time since they've had peace in the Middle East," he said. "The challenge, of course, has been to lay out the conditions so that a peaceful state can emerge. ... Will this ever happen? I think it will. And I know we've advanced the process."
He called President-elect Barack Obama "a very smart, engaging person" and said he wishes his successor all the best. He hinted at the enormous responsibility Obama is about to assume, describing what it might feel like on Jan. 20 when, after taking the oath of office, he enters the Oval Office for the first time as president.
"There'll be a moment when the responsibility of the president lands squarely on his shoulders," Bush said.
He gave his view of the most urgent threat facing the incoming president: an attack on the United States. He chose that risk over the dire economic problems now facing the nation.
"I wish that I could report that's not the case, but there's still an enemy out there that would like to inflict damage on America — on Americans."
He said he would ask Congress to release the remaining $350 billion in Wall Street bailout money if Obama so desires. But, he said, Obama hadn't made that request of him yet.
That soon changed. Shortly after the news conference, the White House said Obama had asked for the request and Bush had agreed to make it.
That will take at least one burden off Obama's shoulders involving a program that is extraordinarily unpopular with many lawmakers and much of the public.
The last news conference of Bush's presidency lasted 46 minutes, and he took questions from more than a dozen reporters.
The last previous time the president had taken questions in a public setting was Dec. 14 in Baghdad, a session that hurtled to the top of the news when Iraqi journalist Muntadhar al-Zeidi threw his shoes at Bush during a question-and-answer session with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Bush's last previous full-blown news conference was July 15. He refused to hold another during the final months of last year's presidential campaign, concerned that the questions would be mostly related to political events and determined to stay out of GOP nominee John McCain's spotlight as much as possible. But even though aides had suggested that would change after the election, Bush still declined to participate in a wide-ranging question-and-answer session until now, just eight days before leaving office.
He has been granting a flurry of legacy-focused interviews as he seeks to shape the view of his presidency on his way out the door.
He gave advice to both his Republican Party and his Democratic successor.
To the GOP, he said it must be "compassionate and broad-minded" to come back from the drubbing it received in last year's elections, in which Republicans lost the White House and sank deeper into the minority in Congress. He said the immigration debate of two years ago was harmful, because conservative opposition to broad reform made it appear that "Republicans don't like immigrants."
"This party will come back. But the party's message has got to be that different points of view are included in the party," he said.
Bush cautioned Obama not to listen to too much criticism — including from "your so-called friends" — and to focus on doing what he thinks is right. He also said to ignore talk of the isolation of the office.
"I have never felt isolated, and I don't think he will," Bush said. "One reason he won't feel isolated is that he's got a fabulous family and he cares a lot about his family."
He went on to mock the way some describe the job.
"I believe the phrase 'burdens of the office' is overstated," he said. "You know, it's kind of like, 'Why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?' It's just pathetic, isn't it, self-pity? And I don't believe that President-elect Obama will be full of self-pity."
Bush seemed to struggle to envision himself on Jan. 21, his first day back at home and without a job.
"I'm a Type A personality. I just can't envision myself, you know, the big straw hat and a Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach," he said. But, he added, it would probably be a pretty low-key day with him and his wife, Laura, at his ranch in Texas. "I wake up in Crawford on Tuesday morning — I mean, Wednesday morning, and I suspect I'll make Laura coffee and, you know, go get it for her."