NEW ORLEANS — President Bush was here Tuesday and again admitted that the government response fell short “at all levels.” He spoke at the city's oldest high school and he visited local music legend Fats Domino. He covered a lot of ground and in the blazing mid-afternoon sun, he took time for a wide-ranging and exclusive conversation with us. We started with the topic at hand -- the handling of the disaster that came ashore here a year ago today.
BRIAN WILLIAMS: You have apologized for the damage, but what about the damage to your presidency? And Mr. President, here's what I mean, most call it your low point. A lot of Americans are always going to believe that that weekend, that week, you were watching something on television other than what they were seeing. And Professor Dyson from the University of Pennsylvania said on our broadcast last night, it was because of your patrician upbringing. That it's a class issue.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I don't know Dyson, and Dyson doesn't know me, but I will tell you this, that when it's all said and done, the people down here know that I stood in Jackson Square, and I said we're gonna help you, and we delivered.
WILLIAMS: When you take a tour of the world, a lot of Americans e-mail me with their fears that, some days they just wake up and it just feels like the end of the world is near. And you go from North Korea to Iran, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and you look at how things have changed, how Americans are viewed overseas, if that is important to you. Do you have any moments of doubt that we fought a wrong war? Or that there's something wrong with the perception of America overseas?
BUSH: Well those are two different questions, did we fight the wrong war, and absolutely -- I have no doubt -- the war came to our shores, remember that. We had a foreign policy that basically said, let's hope calm works. And we were attacked.
WILLIAMS: But those weren't Iraqis.
BUSH : They weren’t, no, I agree, they weren't Iraqis, nor did I ever say Iraq ordered that attack, but they're a part of, Iraq is part of the struggle against the terrorists. Now in terms of image, of course I worry about American image. We are great at TV, and yet we are getting crushed on the PR front. I personally do not believe that Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said, “al-Qaida, attack America.”
WILLIAMS: The folks who say you should have asked for some sort of sacrifice from all of us after 9/11, do they have a case looking back on it?
BUSH: Americans are sacrificing. I mean, we are. You know, we pay a lot of taxes. America sacrificed when they, you know, when the economy went into the tank. Americans sacrificed when, you know, air travel was disrupted. American taxpayers have paid a lot to help this nation recover. I think Americans have sacrificed.
WILLIAMS: Mr. President, I know how much you love deep psychological examinations of yourself. While you were at Kennebunkport this last weekend, people talked about your relationship with your dad. People mentioned that former President Clinton has been a guest at Kennebunkport more often in the last few years than you have been. (Bush laughs.) And there was a lot of speculation and your spokesman Tony Snow recently all but said it's because it was the way your father chose to end the first Gulf War that Bin Laden saw weakness enough to strike the United States. Is there...
BUSH: I am trying to see where you are going with this (laughs).
WILLIAMS: Is there a palpable tension when you get together with the former president, who happens to be your father? A lot of the guys who worked for him are not happy with the direction of things.
BUSH: Oh no. My relationship is adoring son.
WILLIAMS: You talk shop?
BUSH: Sometimes, yeah, of course we do. But it's a really interesting question, it's kind of conspiracy theory at its most rampant. My dad means the world to me, as a loving dad. He gave me the greatest gift a father can give a child, which is unconditional love. And yeah, we go out and can float around there trying to catch some fish, and chat and talk, but he understands what it means to be president. He understands that often times I have information that he doesn't have. And he understands how difficult the world is today. And I explain my strategy to him, I explain exactly what I just explained to you back there how I view the current tensions, and he takes it on board, and leaves me with this thought, “I love you son.”
We have more now of our conversation here today with the president and Mrs. Bush. We first met up with them inside one of the just-completed houses in the so-called Musicians’ Village -- the project by Habitat for Humanity to provide a place for displaced New Orleans musicians to live. This is the first lady's 14th trip here, and the president's 13th since Katrina.
We also talked to the president about his legacy and years in office so far. As you'll now see, the conversation went off into an interesting direction from there.
WILLIAMS: If your administration ended today would you be satisfied with the record thus far? Again, the view out there, I think if you asked 9 out of 10 historians -- High point: bullhorn, in the rubble of the buildings that came down. Low point: We're standing on it. Is that fair?
BUSH: First of all, there's no such thing as short-term history as far as I’m concerned. I think that you can't judge a presidency based upon a moment’s notice. I believe you have to take -- eventually my standing in history will be judged by people 30 or 40 years from now who will be able to take an objective look, at whether the decisions I made led to peace and prosperity. You know, this is a job where you make decisions. And you, you do what you think is right. And you let people recognize, and the people are gonna say what's on their mind at the moment. But I read three histories of George Washington last year. The first President of the United States is still being analyzed by historians, which oughtta say to this president and future president: "Do what you think is right and eventually historians will figure out whether it made sense or not."
WILLIAMS: We always talk about what you're reading. As you know, there was a report that you just read the works of a French philosopher. (Bush laughs)
BUSH: The Stranger.
WILLIAMS: Tell us the back story of Camus.
BUSH: The back story of the the book?
WILLIAMS: What led you to...
BUSH: I was in Crawford and I said I was looking for a book to read and Laura said you oughtta try Camus, I also read three Shakespeare's.
WILLIAMS: This is a change...
BUSH: Not really. Wait a minute.
WILLIAMS: A few months ago you were reading the life story of Joe DiMaggio by Richard Ben Cramer.
BUSH: Which was a good book.
WILLIAMS: You've been on a Teddy Roosevelt reading kick.
BUSH: Well, I'm reading about the battle of New Orleans right now. I’ve got an eclectic reading list.
WILLIAMS: And now Camus?
BUSH: Well, that was a couple of books ago. Let me look. The key for me is to keep expectations low.
WILLIAMS: Is that what everyone doesn't get?
BUSH: I don't know, Brian, what they get or don't get. Here's the thing: The great thing about the presidency is that you are totally exposed. And people spend a lot of, particularly if you're making decisions, and hard decisions, people spend a lot of time, not only analyzing decisions, but analyzing the decision maker. And I understand that, but a president must never let that get him off track.
WILLIAMS: Even if you're frustrated that we're getting something wrong?
BUSH: You have to do what you, if we're getting something wrong, we change it.
WILLIAMS: How have you been read wrong?
BUSH: I don’t know. I frankly don't pay that much attention. I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings, but…
WILLIAMS: Still not watching television, huh?
BUSH: I watched a good baseball game.
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