Bush's swan song: Pride in country, few regrets

In his final address to the nation, he reviews his accomplishments with a sense of wistfulness.

Jason Reed/Reuters
President Bush enters the White House East Room Thursday evening to deliver his farewell address.

In his farewell address, President George W. Bush wished his successor well, defended his record, admitted he would do some things differently, warned of terrorist dangers, and looked to the future with optimism.

His 13 minute talk from the White House East Room was, “a final opportunity to share some thoughts on the journey we have traveled together and the future of our nation,” Mr. Bush said.

He also thanked the American people “for the trust you have given me.” The outgoing president spoke before an audience of about 200 which included family, friends, and 45 individuals singled out for various kinds of national service. Administration officials said the talk was the last time Mr. Bush would appear in public before greeting Barack Obama on the North Portico of the White House Tuesday morning for their trip together to the Capitol for Obama’s inauguration.

The tradition of presidential farewell addresses began with George Washington whose message to the American people was printed on September 19, 1796 in a Philadelphia newspaper and later reprinted by papers around in the country. The first president used the lengthy article to warn against entanglements with foreign countries. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world,” Washington said. One of the most memorable address in the 20th century came from another president who had been a general, Dwight Eisenhower. In his January 17, 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower famously warned, “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” In recent years, Presidents Carter, Reagan, and Clinton gave farewell talks. President George H.W. Bush did not.

Thursday evening’s address was the final element in a series of speeches and interviews by Bush framing the administration’s accomplishments and rebutting its critics as the end of his term drew near. He leaves office with approval ratings not seen since the days of Richard Nixon. In the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll, President Bush had a 27 percent approval rating. Some 67 percent of those polled disapproved of his conduct of the office.

The president was composed throughout the speech, showing slight traces of emotion only in his closing line and when talking about a father who was granted an age waiver in order to serve in the Navy Medical Corps to honor his son, a Marine killed in Iraq.

When asked about the president’s mood at Thursday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Dana Perino said, “the president is being reflective at times….he is sad in some ways” about saying goodbye to his team.

As has been the case throughout the transition, Bush spoke graciously about President-elect Obama. His inauguration “is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation,” Bush said.

Early in the talk, Bush referred to his first speech to the nation from the White House, following September 11, 2001. He argued that while many Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11, “I never did.” He added, “I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.”

He listed a variety of steps including military action in Iraq and Afghanistan, starting the Department of Homeland Security, and a transformation of the FBI and the intelligence community. “There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil,” Bush said.

His admission of regrets or mistakes was less detailed than it was in Monday’s presidential press conference. “I have experienced setbacks,” Bush said. “There are thing I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind.” He did not offer any examples of things he would change.

In Mr. Bush’s view, “The gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack.” He cautioned, “we must never let down our guard.”

The 43rd president ended on an optimistic note, citing Thomas Jefferson’s line: “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” The president said the virtues of the American people give him an unshakable faith in the country despite the dangers that may lie ahead. “With the courage of our people and confidence in our ideals, this great nation will never tire…never falter…and never fail,” he said.

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