WASHINGTON – Reflecting on two tumultuous terms in the White House, President George W. Bush defended his tenure in a farewell address Thursday, arguing that he followed his conscience and always acted in the best interests of the nation.
“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,” Bush said, according to excerpts of his prime-time speech released in advance by the White House.
A bookend to eight years indelibly marked by terrorism, two wars, recessions and a push for democracy, the speech offered Bush one last chance before he leaves office Tuesday to defend his presidency and craft a first draft of his legacy for historians. He is scheduled to deliver the speech from the White House East Room, with just 112 hours left in his presidency.
Bush is spending his last weekend as president at Camp David. The speech is his final public appearance until he greets President-elect Barack Obama on Inauguration Day at the White House’s North Portico.
Bush called the inauguration of Obama, the first black president, a “moment of hope and pride” for America.
“Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose story reflects the enduring promise of our land,” he said in wishing the best to Obama, incoming first lady Michelle Obama, and their two daughters.
Bush’s presidency began with the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil and ends with the worst economic collapse in three generations.
“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.”
An audience of about 200 people were being assembled to listen to the speech at the White House. They include about 45 people chosen for their personal stories, a practice normally reserved for a State of the Union address. The venue is a break from farewell addresses by Presidents Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan, who spoke to the nation from the Oval Office.
“Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks,” said Bush, whose performance has drawn low public approval ratings for months. “There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right.”
Bush also prodded the nation to lead the cause of freedom and maintain its “moral clarity” in what he described as a choice between good and evil.
“I have often spoken to you about good and evil,” he added. “This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise.”
Not all presidents give goodbye addresses. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, did not. But the president’s advisers said Bush wanted to thank the nation for the opportunity to serve and defend his legacy in his own terms.
On national security, he highlighted his administration’s efforts to equip the nation with new tools to monitor terrorists, freeze their finances and foil their plots. But he also acknowledged some of his controversial policies, including the terrorist surveillance program and harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists.
“There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions, but there can be little debate about the results,” said Bush, who also reiterated his belief that spreading human liberty and freedom offers an alternative to extremism. “America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.”
Critics claim that while there has not been another attack on U.S. soil, the number of terrorist acts around the world has increased; Iran has gained influence in the Mideast; North Korea still hasn’t verifiably declared its nuclear work; anti-Americanism abroad has emboldened extremists’ recruitment efforts; and a safe haven for terrorists remains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.
Reflecting on Sept. 11, Bush warned Americans not to become complacent about the threat from terrorists.
“As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11, but I never did,” Bush said. “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.”
Touting his domestic record, Bush said he has presided over higher standards in public schools, a new Medicare prescription drug benefit, lower income taxes, added help for people suffering from drug addiction, and the appointment of two justices to the Supreme Court.
“We have faced danger and trial, and there is more ahead,” Bush said as he passed off a huge set of challenges to Obama. “But with the courage of our people and confidence in our ideals, this great nation will never tire, never falter, and never fail.”