Bush Looks Back
An Oval Office conversation with the outgoing president.


Byron York

On a related topic, the president rejected criticism that his administration has presided over a deterioration of relations with the rest of the world: “One, it is hard for any president to say that he and his country have had strong relations with Japan, Korea, and China at the same time,” Bush explained. “Two, we have changed our relationship with India from one of suspicion to one of partnership, while being able to keep influence in Pakistan. Three, I articulated a two-state solution, at the same time vowing to defend Israel and keeping strong relations with Saudi Arabia and Jordan and Egypt and the UAE.”

Turning to domestic matters, on the Supreme Court, the president expressed happiness with his picks of John Roberts and Samuel Alito. “My regret is I didn’t get to name a third judge,” he told us. Still, he said, the two he did name to the Court “will have an impact way beyond my presidency.”

Asked whether he believes Harriet Miers “would have been excellent on the court,” the president quickly responded, “Absolutely. Absolutely, no question in my mind . . . and there’s no doubt in my mind that my dear friend, Harriet Miers, would have had the same judicial philosophy 20 years after I went home, and had the intellectual firepower to do the job.” Bush said he felt it was important to pick a judicial candidate who was “not part of the judicial-nominee club — she went to SMU Law School” and who was a pioneer in her own law firm. His regret about the Miers case, he told us, was that “this really, really good person got chucked out there and, man, the lions tore her up.”

Beyond that, the president expressed unhappiness with the way some of his judicial nominees were treated by the Senate. “For the first time, the filibuster became a part of the judicial confirmation process,” he told us. “That’s a terrible precedent for the concept of advise and consent.” As he spoke, Bush seemed frustrated but resigned. Senators, he added, “can be meddlesome at times, but that’s the history of the Senate. . . . I understand that; that’s just part of the process.”

On Social Security, the president vigorously defended his 2005 push for reform. “I feel strongly about the issue,” he said. “They say, ‘Regrets?’ I regret we didn’t modernize Social Security. I do not regret having laid out a way forward in every State of the Union address I spoke.”

We also asked the president about reports Barack Obama is planning to use executive orders to undo some of the policies, like restrictions on embryonic-stem-cell research and abortion counseling, that Bush had used executive orders to put in place. Were there any that he would particularly hate to see go?

“Why don’t we wait to see what happens?” the president cautioned. “But I hear, for example, on the stem-cell issue — one of the principles by which I have conducted my presidency is all life is precious, and that a society, a whole society, is one that treats the most vulnerable with respect and care. . . . It is essential that on issues, like this issue, there be a clear statement of principle and an understanding of both sides of the issue, and a practical application of policy. And that’s what we’ve done — principle is, life is precious.” Bush said he hoped the new administration would pour money into other types of cell research, but he seemed reconciled to change. “Look, my position is clear,” he said. “We’ll see what they do on it.”

On another issue in which Bush policy might be reversed, we asked about Obama’s pledge to “cut investments in unproven missile-defense systems . . . not weaponize space . . . [and] slow development of future combat systems.” What did that mean for missile defense, especially after the most recent successful test of a missile-intercept system?

“A big decision in my administration was one I took early on, and that was to abrogate the ABM treaty, so we would have the flexibility to develop a system that would meet the threats of the 21st century,” the president said. In particular, he wanted American defenses that could deal with “the onesies and the twosies — in other words, launches from rogue regimes.” That has been accomplished, he said, “and it’s a very important tool for future administrations to know they have at their disposal.”

“This system has developed way beyond where it stood in 2001,” the president continued, “to the point where we were able to take a tumbling satellite out of orbit with one shot off an Aegis cruiser. So I hope that when people fully analyze the capabilities and understand that there is an important check against certain regimes’ ambitions . . . [that they realize] a missile-defense system is a tool, a part of a series of tools a president can be able to use to effect the advance of liberty for the sake of peace.”

In six weeks, the president will leave office, having been — in the view of most political observers — rejected by the public. But it’s a different moment, with a different message, that looms large for him. “I was asked the other day, you know, ‘Big moments during your presidency?’” he said. “Well, one such moment was being sworn in the second time and — because it was a tough four years — but I didn’t shy away from what I did during those four years. I didn’t try to sugarcoat my decisions; I defended them. And to have the people say, ‘We’re going to give you four more’ was — and be able to deliver that speech [at the second inauguration] and be sworn in a second time — a very meaningful moment. It’s hard to describe to you.”

Now, the president said he leaves with the satisfaction of knowing he stayed true to his principles. “I’m comfortable that I have made principled decisions for eight years,” he said, “that I was unwilling to sacrifice those principles for the sake of short-term approbation.” And as he goes — he and Mrs. Bush have just bought a home in Dallas — he told us he’s not troubled by what will be written about him. “I’m fully aware that it is impossible to have an objective history of this administration written at this point in time,” he said. But he remains confident that in the end, history will judge that, when it came to the big things, he made the right decisions.