A relaxed Bush faces his 'ultimate exit interview'

But as he prepares to leave the White House, he also opens up more on mistakes and disappointments.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

At his final press conference as president, George W. Bush was by turns reflective, defensive, humorous, and nostalgic.

"This is the ultimate exit interview," Mr. Bush said near the start of his 50-minute appearance in the White House briefing room Monday morning. The president opened the session with a statement of appreciation for the role of the press. "We have been through a lot together," he said.

His responses to reporters were sprinkled with personal asides, kidding CNN correspondent Suzanne Malveaux about the preferred pronunciation of her name and ABC's Jake Tapper about the career path that led to his assignment covering President-elect Barack Obama.

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Bush repeated his oft-stated hope that the president-elect would succeed. The president said he would ask Congress to release the remaining $350 billion in Wall Street bailout money before leaving office if Mr. Obama asked him to. Such a move would mean Obama would not have to start his term supporting the unpopular bailout. Noting that Obama would come in for criticism once in office, Bush said, "I hope the tone is respectful.... He deserves it and so does the country."

When asked about criticism that his execution of various policies, including the war in Iraq, had been flawed, Bush responded that "hard things don't happen overnight." He disagreed with the assertion that the standing of the United States had been diminished by his administration's conduct of the war on terror. "I strongly disagree that our moral standing has been damaged," Bush said.

Asked about mistakes and regrets, the president offered a fuller list than he has in the past. "Clearly putting 'Mission Accomplished' on an aircraft carrier [early in the Iraq war] was a mistake," he said. "Some of my rhetoric has been a mistake," he added.

The mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Grahib "was a huge disappointment," he said. One new item on the president's list of publicly admitted mistakes was the decision to push for privatization of Social Security after the 2004 election. The administration "should have argued for immigration reform" then, he said.

The president defended the administration's handling of hurricane Katrina. "Don't tell me the response was slow when 30,000 people were pulled off roofs" right after the storm, he said.

After eight years of living in the White House, protected by an army of Secret Service agents, Bush said, "I have never felt isolated." He added, "I had a fabulous team around me and we had fun."

He said the concept of the office being a burden "is overstated." But Bush also predicted a moment would come for Obama soon after his inauguration "when the responsibility of the president lands squarely on his shoulders."

When asked how soon after returning to Texas he would get back to work, Bush said, "probably the next day." He quipped, "I can't see myself with a big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt sitting on a beach."

Whatever he does, it will be out of view for a while, Bush said. "When I get out of here, I am getting off the stage."

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