Explainer: Decisions Points: Transcript
Read the transcript to the NBC News Special, 'Decision Points', an exclusive interview with former president George W. Bush, which aired Monday, Nov. 8th at 8pm/7c. Click on 'next' to read the following part of the episode.
Decision Points: Part 1
After two tumultuous terms as president, he waved goodbye to Washington.
He's been silent ever since.
GEORGE BUSH: I didn't want to get back into what I call "the swamp."
But tonight, George W. Bush speaks out.
With emotional stories you've never heard about his father…
BUSH: If you want me to weep, let me read some of the letters that he has written to me as a son.
…Tales from his drinking days...
BUSH:Okay. So here's one of the worst. (laughter)
MATT LAUER:That's what we want, we want the worst.
…Secrets of his administration revealed…
LAUER: Dick Cheney says, "The bio detectors have gone off. We think there's been a botulism toxin attack."
…His most controversial decisions laid bare…
BUSH:Let's talk about waterboarding.
…Facing questions about the war in Iraq…
LAUER: Was there ever any consideration of apologizing to the American people?
…Talking tough about what he calls the worst day of his presidency…
BUSH: It was a disgusting moment, pure and simple.
Tonight, you'll get the real George W. Bush.
BUSH: Somebody said, "Congratulations. Your popularity is way up since you left office." And my answer was, "So what?"
LAUER (in studio): Good evening. I'm Matt Lauer. His new memoir is called Decision Points, and indeed, America will be living with some of his decisions for decades to come. President George W. Bush came to Washington amid protests, guided the country through tragedy and more than once, courted controversy. Tonight, in a wide-ranging conversation, the former president speaks out about it all, extremely candid about his best and toughest times, starting with day one.
LAUER: I want to take you to Inauguration Day, 2001, in January. What were your thoughts, what were your expectations of that day?
BUSH: I knew it would be an emotional moment… and a moment of high honor. And I wanted to start trying to unite the country after a very divisive election.
LAUER: You're in the motorcade and you write about this. You and Mrs. Bush are heading to The White House, and there are protestors.
BUSH: Yeah, a lot of 'em.
LAUER: And they're holding signs with foul language, and they're giving you the middle finger salute. And some of those signs say, "Hail to the Thief."
LAUER: And they're throwing eggs.
BUSH: Yeah. This crowd of activists were, you know, trying to disrupt and ruin the inaugural parade for others.
LAUER: You write about you're in the-- in the limo, and they've got that bulletproof glass which takes some of the sound out.
BUSH: But it looks like a pantomime. It was interesting. I put it in there just to give people a sense for what the environment was like when I became President.
The Florida recount. Hanging chads. A divided Supreme Court. George Bush had a rough road to the White House.
A road made rougher, he admits, by his own missteps.
We met in the Texas church where he started bible study and married his wife Laura.
There he shared some remarkable stories about his family that he's never told before.
LAUER: And one of them is a poignant story you tell about your mom, about your mom having a miscarriage when you were just a teenager.
LAUER: And you were the one who drove her to the hospital. And you write, quote, "I never expected to see the remains of the fetus, which he had saved in a jar to bring to the hospital. There was a human life, a little brother or sister." You and she had never talked publicly about this story until she gave you permission--
LAUER: To write about it in this book.
BUSH: And that's why you're asking me, because, had my mother said, "Son, I don't want you talking about it," it wouldn't have been in the book. I put the story in the book-- as a-- part of a tale as to how my mom and I had be-- you know, the relationship between my mom and I.
LAUER: What'd you learn about her through that experience?
BUSH: One, she trusted me. And when you're a-- a teenage kid, you know, you're kind of self absorbed person. And your mom says, "I trust you." It's-- it's-- it-- to me, that boost-- it boosted my confidence. And what I learned was she's a straightforward person.
BUSH: She says to her teenage kid, "Here's a fetus." And--
LAUER: It's also, though, impossible not to draw parallels between that moment where you said, "This was a little brother or sister," and your views on life…
BUSH: That's true.
LAUER: …And when it begins.
BUSH: No question it that affected me, my philosophy that we should respect life. And I’m, I’m-- I was a pro-life President. And-- but-- the-- this-- that-- the purpose of the story really wasn't to try to show the evolution of a-- or the-- you know, the beginning of a pro-life point of view. It was really to show how my mom and I developed a relationship.
A relationship he strained at times, especially when, as an adult, he admits he was a heavy drinker.
LAUER: You call it a West Texas expression about guys who drink: "Last night he thought he was a ten."
BUSH: Right. (laughter)
LAUER: "In fact, he was an ass."
BUSH: That's right. (laughter)
LAUER: And does-- (chuckle) does that describe how you'd get on occasion?
BUSH: Yeah, it did, sometimes. I said some stupid things.
LAUER: Tell me the story about the dinner party where you--
BUSH: Okay. So here's one of the worst. (laughter)
LAUER: That's what we want, we want the worst.
BUSH: Well, you found it.
BUSH: So I'm drunk at the dinner table at Mother and Dad's house in Maine. And my brothers and sister are there. Laura's there. And I'm sitting next to a beautiful woman, friend of Mother and Dad's, and I said to her out loud, "What is sex like after 50?"
BUSH: And I mean total silence. And not only silence, but like serious daggers.
LAUER: From your mom.
BUSH: Yeah, and my wife.
LAUER: But the point of the story is to say alcohol had a control of you. You didn't have control over alcohol.
BUSH: That's right.
He says his faith helped him quit cold turkey just after his 40th birthday.
LAUER: Throughout your Presidency, there were times, because people knew your background drinking, where the rumors would start to go around. They'd say--
BUSH: "You're (chuckle) drinking again."
LAUER: "He's drinking again."
LAUER: You know, he's at the-- so talk to me. During the most stressful times of your Presidency, 9-11, Iraq, Katrina, you never fell off the wagon?
BUSH: No, of course not.
LAUER: Not a sip.
BUSH: No. I haven't had a sip of alcohol since 1986.
BUSH: Nah. I was through.
He calls quitting the most important decision of his life.
Eight years after he took his last drink, the son of President George H.W. Bush, won his first election.
LAUER: You learn a little bit about the relationship between you and Dad, your-- you and your father, in a letter.
LAUER: That he wrote to you on the occasion of your inauguration as Governor of Texas.
LAUER: You have your glasses?
BUSH: I can't read it.
LAUER: You-- here.
BUSH: You-- you're gonna have to read it.
LAUER: Do you mind if I read a little bit for you?
BUSH: Here's the thing you just gotta understand (chuckle). If you want me to weep, lemme read some of the letters that he has written to me as a son. I mean, I-- yeah, you can read it.
LAUER: Let me read a part of it.
BUSH: Thank you for doing that. (chuckle)
LAUER: "These cufflinks are my most treasured possession. They were given to me by Mom and Dad on June 9th, that day in 1943 when I got my Navy wings at Corpus Christie. I want you to have them now for in a sense you are getting your wings as you take the Oath of Office as our Governor. You have sacrificed for us. You have given us your unwavering loyalty and devotion. And now it's our turn."
BUSH: Yeah. Wow. So, yeah, that's-- as I said, I-- I could barely get through it, listening to you read it. I know, there's a lot of psycho babble out there that, you know, he and I compete and W's trying to, you know, overshadow his father, and all this. Look, I think people would be surprised to learn that this relationship is based upon love. I admired--
LAUER: Why would people be surprised by that?
BUSH: Well, because--
LAUER: He's your father.
BUSH: Because it's not as complex as some would like it to be. I admired him. And he never disappointed me. He was always a great father. He was always a man who gave unconditional love. And so when it came time to run for President I was motivated in large part-- look, I wanted to run. I had an agenda. You know, I had a team of people I was comin' with. The truth of the matter is the final motivating factor was my admiration for George Bush, and I wondered whether or not I had what it took to get in the arena like he did.
Launching his campaign, he turned to an old hand from his father's administration.
LAUER: When you decided to run for Presidency, one of the first major decisions you had to make is choosing a running mate.
LAUER: And you write in the book a story that when you went to Dick Cheney and said, "Dick, I want you to be my running mate," he said, "Well, I gotta talk to my wife about it." And then he reminded you of some-- he said, "First of all, I want you to remember I have some health issues."
LAUER: And then he looked at you, and he said something else. He said, “Mary is gay."
LAUER: Mary's his daughter.
BUSH: That's right. Yeah.
LAUER: What was your reaction when he said that?
BUSH: My reaction was twofold. One, there's a guy who loves his daughter. And secondly, he's testing whether or not I cared about it.
LAUER: Yeah, you write in the book--
BUSH: That was his--
LAUER: He was gauging your tolerance.
BUSH: I think so, yeah.
LAUER: There's nothing in your background that would have led him to believe you wouldn't be tolerant.
LAUER: Wasn't he gauging the tolerance of the base of the Republican party?
LAUER: Wasn't he saying, "Isn't this-- will this be an issue?"
BUSH: No. He was gauging my tolerance.
LAUER: So if you had to rate that decision choosing Dick Cheney as your running mate, how would you rate that decision?
BUSH: I'd rate it a very good one.
Dick Cheney would become one of the most polarizing figures in his administration-- maybe in history. But that wasn't obvious when George W. Bush took the oath of office in January 2001.
LAUER: You had to be thinking, "How am I gonna bring this country together, based on the emotions I'm seeing right here, on day one?"
BUSH: Yeah, that was part of what I was thinking. I mean, you're sworn in as President. But you're really not-- kind of totally immersed in the job until the next do day when the CIA comes in and says, "Mr. President, here's your intelligence." And all of a sudden the problems become your responsibility. //
LAUER: Talk about the problems becoming your responsibility. It was a Tuesday, September 11, 2001.
Decision Points: Part 2
LAUER: It was a Tuesday-- September 11, 2001.
LAUER: You were in a school in Florida.
BUSH: I was listening to children read their book.
(Footage of George Bush in classroom)
It was a scheduled appearance to promote education reform. He already knew one plane had hit the World Trade Center, but thought it was an accident. Then his Chief of Staff whispered in his ear.
BUSH: And Andy says, "A second plane has hit the World Trade Center, America's under attack."
LAUER: That videotape of you sitting there, and now that we know in hindsight you had just been given that news, and you sat there. And it was seven minutes.
BUSH: Yeah, that's right. I made the decision not to jump up and create a chaotic scene, because people were gonna be watching my reaction.
LAUER: Yeah, but it's also in the eye of the beholder, because the supporters of George Bush look at those seven minutes on tape and say, "He was trying to show an air of calm." The critics of George Bush say, "He was in shock."
BUSH: Yeah, well, I'm not gonna debate the critics as to whether or not I was in shock or not. I wasn't. They can read the book and they can draw their own conclusion.
He made a brief statement at the school. Then, he and his staff boarded Air Force One.
LAUER: You said, "Le-- let's go-- I'm the President. Let's go back to Washington," and they didn't let you. Can you not overrule them at that period?
BUSH: I can. But there is an issue of the continuity of government.
And so Air Force One stayed away from the Capitol, flying first to Louisiana... then Nebraska... while, incredibly, President Bush found it hard to get a reliable phone connection to Washington.
BUSH: So I'm on Air Force One-- that was-- that had a communication system that was antiquated.
LAUER: Yeah, I was surprised to read that.
BUSH: I was surprised that it was the case. And I was getting fleeting glimpses of the news. As we went from TV market to TV market, I watched these buildings collapse from from Air Force One and it was-- it was a very emotional moment for all of us, not just me, but for everybody involved.
LAUER: You gave an order at some point during that morning, there was still chaos.
LAUER: Nobody knew if there were other planes. And you had to give an order that the US Military had the authority to shoot down any plane, whether it was a Cessna or a commercial airliner that did not respond to commands to land.
BUSH: Right. We had made the decision to clear the skies of all aircraft. The only safe course of action was to say, "No airplanes, and any airplane that shows up that does not respond to fighter escort would get shot down."
LAUER: In fact, when Flight 93 went down in that field in Shanksville, there was a time when you didn't know, whether that plane had gone down because of your order.
BUSH: And I had a sickening feeling. And then I found out that it, 93, had gone down because of the heroism of some Americans. Truly a heroic act to storm the cockpit, to bring down the plane to save other's lives.
He got back to Washington that evening. A city, and a country, forever changed.
LAUER: A couple of days after 9/11 you gave a speech at the National Cathedral.
BUSH (speech): We are here in the middle hour of our grief.
LAUER: But as you stood there delivering this powerful and important speech, you say the one place you dared not look…
LAUER: …Is the pew containing your mother and your father and Laura.
BUSH: And my wife, yeah. I wanted to make sure that the speech was one in which I was able to deliver the message without being too emotional. I'd looked out and I saw these servicemen crying, you know. I said, "Oh my goodness. I'd better focus." And then I realized that the one place that would really cause me to have serious emotions would be watching Laura, looking at Laura, Mom and Dad. So I didn't really. (laughter)
LAUER: You finished the speech. You walked back down, and you sat in the pew. And as you sat down, I'll never forget it. Your dad reached over and just put his hand on your hand.
BUSH: Yeah. He did. It was a very touching moment. I-- you know, I've seen the replay of that. And my recollections are still the same, though. It's like, "Good going, son. I love you." And it was just an expression of love. It was very powerful.
LAUER: It was later that day you went to New York City and you went to Ground Zero.
BUSH: I did.
LAUER: Just describe the moment to me.
BUSH: Well, first of all, when we walked, I call it, "The Pit." I mean, it seemed like we were walking into a pit. There was not only soot and grime and grey, but there's water. I mean, it was like walking into hell. And I got down to the bottom of the-- into the area there, and there was a palpable sense of revenge and anger and you know, I'm trying to be the comforter. And these guys are looking at me like, "Are you gonna go get these guys, or not?"
LAUER: They're calling you, "George."
BUSH: That's right. It was just fine, I mean--
LAUER: Yeah. Not, "Mr. President." "George."
BUSH: (Laughter) It was, "George." "Dammit George," you know, and I believe in justice not revenge. And I was overwhelmed by the, you know, the palpable anger and emotion. And so I got on the rubble,
BUSH (on bull horn): We mourn the loss of thousands of our citizens …
BUSH: "Listen-- we appreciate your service and this, that and the other." And-- "We can't hear you." And-- and it wasn't kind of a soft, "We can't hear you." It's, "We can't hear you!"
BUSH (on bull horn): I can hear you! (applause)The rest of the world hears you and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon! (applause)
For many people, George W. Bush became a hero that day, but soon the questions started.
LAUER: Based on some of the intelligence briefings you had gotten did you not have any idea…
LAUER: …Who was behind this?
BUSH: I mean we all surmised it was al Qaeda but before you make a decision to go find somebody you wanna make sure the intelligence is as good as it can get. And the next couple of days were heard all kinds of chatter and celebratory talk and so it became clear it was al Qaeda.
LAUER: Did you ever ask yourself the question, "What more could I have done," to prevent this from happening?
BUSH: Well, we just didn't have any solid intelligence that gave us a warning on this. We didn't have any clear intelligence that said you know, "Get ready. They're gonna fly airplanes into New York buildings."
LAUER: Here's something else from the book: “I could never forget what happened to America that day. I would pour my heart and soul into protecting this country, whatever it took." It took two wars. It took thousands of lives, American lives. Billions of dollars. You could say it taking Guantanamo and Abu Gharib and government eavesdropping and waterboarding. Did it take too much?
BUSH: We didn't have an attack. 3,000 people died on September the 11th and I vowed that I would do my duty to protect the American people.
He'll discuss how far he was willing to go to protect America and talk about the credibility of intelligence when we continue.
BUSH: Let's talk about waterboarding.
Decision Points: Part 3
LAUER: There were so many reports, some proved completely false in those hours and days after the attacks of 9/11. There were reports of bombs at national monuments. There were other planes that were supposed to be heading into Washington. There was a threat, apparently, against Air Force One.
BUSH: Yeah, called Angel. That's right.
LAUER: That's right. And then there's a story in the book that I didn't know about. Dick Cheney comes to you on one of those video lines and he says, Mr. President, we have a problem.
It had never been reported before.
A few weeks after 9/11, President Bush, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice were at an economic summit in China when Vice President Cheney and Deputy National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley called them to a secure video conference.
BUSH: Dick says, "The bio detectors have gone off. We think there's been a botulism toxin attack." Now that is-- that--
LAUER: At The White House?
BUSH: At The White House. And we had all been exposed to it. And had we inhaled it, we could easily be dead. Steve Hadley reported, very formal, really good man, says, "Mr. President, we'll have mice tested soon." And we kind of chuckled and said, "Well, if the mice are feet up, we're goners. And if they're feet down, we're fine." (laughter)
LAUER: So some of the most powerful people in the country are waiting to see if a bunch of lab mice (Iaughter) die.
BUSH: Up or down.
LAUER: And if they die, you're dead.
BUSH: Yeah. That's what it was. And the reason I tell the story is because it's hard for people to remember that right after 9/11 we were inundated with threats. A lot of threats.
He and his staff were desperate for information on those threats. How they chose to get it is one of the most contentious issues of his Presidency, one he seemed eager to discuss.
BUSH: Let-- let-- let's talk about waterboarding.
BUSH: We believe America's going to be attacked again. There's all kinds of intelligence comin' in. And-- and-- one of the high value al Qaeda operatives was Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the chief operating officer of al Qaeda… ordered the attack on 9/11. And they say, "He's got information." I said, "Find out what he knows.” And so I said to our team, "Are the techniques legal?" He says, "Yes, they are." And I said, "Use 'em."
LAUER: Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?
BUSH: Because the lawyer said it was legal. He said it did not fall within the Anti-Torture Act. I'm not a lawyer., but you gotta trust the judgment of people around you and I do.
LAUER: You say it's legal. "And the lawyers told me."
LAUER: Critics say that you got the Justice Department to give you the legal guidance and the legal memos that you wanted.
LAUER: Tom Kean, who a former Republican co-chair of the 9/11 commission said they got legal opinions they wanted from their own people.
BUSH: He obviously doesn't know. I hope Mr. Kean reads the book. That's why I've written the book. He can, they can draw whatever conclusion they want. But I will tell you this. Using those techniques saved lives. My job is to protect America and I did.
LAUER: You talk about Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. There's another guy you write about in the book, Abu Zabeta, another high profile terror suspect. He was waterboarded. By the way, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, according to most reports, 183 times. This guy was waterboarded more than 80 times. And you explain that his understanding of Islam was that he had to resist interrogation up to a certain point and waterboarding was the technique that allowed him to reach that threshold and fulfill his religious duty and then cooperate. And you have a quote from him. "You must do this for all the brothers." End quote.
BUSH: Yeah. Isn't that interesting?
LAUER: Abu Zabeta really went to someone and said, "You should waterboard all the brothers?
BUSH: He didn't say that. He said, "You should give brothers the chance to be able to fulfill their duty." I don't recall him saying you should water-- I think it's-- I think it's an assumption in your case.
LAUER: Yeah, I-- when "You must do this for--"
LAUER: …"All the brothers." So to let them get to that threshold?
BUSH: Yeah, that's what-- that's how I interpreted. I-- look, first of all we used this technique on three people. Captured a lot of people and used it on three. We gained value-- information to protect the country. And it was the right thing to do as far as I'm concerned.
LAUER: So if-- if it's legal, President Bush, then if an American is taken into custody in a foreign country, not necessarily a uniformed--
BUSH: Look, I --
BUSH: I'm not gonna the issue, Matt. I, I really--
LAUER: I'm just asking. Would it be okay for a foreign country to waterboard an American citizen?
BUSH: It's all I ask is that people read the book. And they can reach the same conclusion. If they'd have made the same decision I made or not.
LAUER: You'd make the same decision again today?
BUSH: Yeah, I would.
BUSH (video footage): The United States military has begun strikes against al qaeda terrorist training camps
Far less controversial, the decision to invade Afghanistan… At the time a haven for terrorists... base of operations for Osama Bin Laden.
LAUER: When you're starting the war plans for Afghanistan, I mean clearly you had enormous public support. Your approval rating after 9/11 went up to something like 90 percent.
LAUER: Well, I'm just (laughter) saying. You had enormous support. What were your fears about Afghanistan when you-- when you were developing the war plan?
BUSH: Yeah, the decision to enforce new doctrine, which is if you harbor a terrorist, you're equally as guilty as the terrorist, was not that difficult to make. The hard decision is what to do after you have removed the Taliban. Our nation was ill equipped for nation building.
LAUER: Could you have ever imagined in 2001 that we'd still be in Afghanistan and still struggling?
BUSH: I was hopeful that that would not be the case, but I was also mindful, Matt, of that and history tells us. It-- democracies take a while to develop, including our own.
LAUER: How big a let down was it for, President Bush, that we failed to get Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan? According to a lot of reports we had him almost in our grasp in Tora Bora and maybe used too few American commandos to get 'em. What's the truth?
BUSH: Well, first of all, the-- the truth is, I was-- I was disappointed, deeply disappointed, and still am. And, secondly (laughs) you know, I heard all that noise. We would have moved heaven and earth to get him if we'd have known where he was.
And in any case, there was a new war to wage. How and why he decided to invade Iraq: next.
LAUER: Did you personally have any doubt, any shred of doubt, about that intelligence?
BUSH: No, I didn't.
Decision Points: Part 4
LAUER (in studio): Continuing our conversation with former president George W. Bush, we come to the Iraq War. No set of decisions he made was more controversial, or more consequential. Now, he explains it all in his own words.
LAUER: In a conversation I think over lunch you had with Dick Cheney in the-- in the period of build up to the war in Iraq, he said to you, "Are you gonna take care of this guy or not?" (laughter) First of all, I was surprised by the tone that Vice President would use with you. Was it surprising to you?
BUSH: No. I mean that's-- it's—we have a very frank relationship. And he would give me his unvarnished advice.
LAUER: Right. But his comment leads to the question was Dick Cheney pushing you to go to war with Iraq, because--
BUSH: It didn't matter whether he was or not. I am the guy who makes the decisions as to when we move. I was trying to give diplomacy a chance to work. And he might have been sayin', "Let's go." But I said no.
He says he eventually decided to go to war based on Saddam Hussein's defiance… and what seemed to be rock-solid intelligence.
LAUER: On the subject of-- of-- of WMD, George Tenet famously said, "It's a slam dunk."
BUSH: Yes. The intelligence.
LAUER: The intelligence is. So by the time you gave the order to start military operations in Iraq, did you personally have any doubt, any shred of doubt, about that intelligence?
BUSH: No, I didn't. I really didn't.
LAUER: Not everybody thought you should go to war, though. There were dissenters.
BUSH: Of course there were.
LAUER: Did you filter them out?
BUSH: I was-- I was a dissenting voice. I didn't wanna use force.
BUSH (video footage): My fellow citizens. At this hour, American and coalition forces are in the early stages of military operations to disarm Iraq, to free its people, and to defend the world from grave danger.
LAUER: On April 9, 2003, 20 days in combat, and here comes that statute of Saddam Hussein crashing to the ground in Iraq. Describe your emotion?
BUSH: It was an exhilarating moment, but it was only a moment. Shortly thereafter I said, "Hey-- we're not doin' any victory dances," 'cause I knew full well the task at hand was gonna be very difficult.
LAUER: And then you write in the book, "I should have listened to my own advice."
BUSH: Yeah (laughs). Because that led into the famous "Mission Accomplished" trip.
LAUER: Yeah. May (laughter) 1, 2003, you stood on the deck of that aircraft carrier and you said, you know, to the American people--
BUSH (video footage): Major combat operations in Iraq have ended.
BUSH: And I also went on to say, "There's more difficult work ahead." The problem is—
LAUER: But you stood under that banner and it sent a very strong message.
BUSH: No question.
LAUER: Mission accomplished.
BUSH: No question it was a mistake.
LAUER: Yeah, it's one of those--
BUSH: You know, so, so--
LAUER: --times where your words were used against you over and over again.
BUSH: No. And that happens when you're President (laughs) and if I had to do it all over again, which you don't get to do when you're the President, you know, I'd have said, "Good goin', men and women. Great mission" or something. I don't know what it is, but…
In the Summer of 2003, Vice President Dick Cheney, one of the main advocates for the war and a lightning rod for its critics, made a surprising suggestion.
LAUER: When you are getting ready to run for reelection. He comes to you.
BUSH: Yes, he does.
LAUER: And he says to you, "Mr. President-- if you want to run with somebody else, it's okay."
LAUER: And what surprised me in the book is you didn't just say, "No, Dick. It's you. You know, you dance with the one you came with, and it's us forever." You waited a couple of weeks to make that decision. And that sounds a little to me like you left him twisting in the wind.
BUSH: No, not at all. I'm a deliberative person. And you know I thought about it. But I came down to the-- to this conclusion. He was a solid advisor. He never went around my back. When I made a decision, he supported it. And I liked him a lot, and so…
LAUER: But during those first three years of your Presidency you heard the rumors out there. Everybody was saying, "Dick Cheney is the guy. He's the President behind the scenes. He's running the White House."
BUSH: I know.
LAUER: And you had to deal with that in another way, too. You had the whole Karl Rove, “Bush's Brain” thing.
LAUER: How much did that sting? And would have replacing Dick Cheney on the ticket, might have eliminated that?
BUSH: Well, that's an interesting question because had I said to Dick, "Sure. You're gone, because I'm worried about people's perceptions of me." It would have been a shallow, narrow-minded self-serving decision.
LAUER: But when you heard those things, did it sting? "Bush's Brain"… "Dick Cheney's running The White House"…
BUSH: No, no it didn't sting at all because the so-called Bush's Brain and Dick Cheney knew full well that one wasn't my brain and the other one wasn't runn-- runnin-- running The White House. Look, when you're the President, there's all kinds of things said about us (laughter). I mean, it is-- it-- it's just the nature of the job.
Another, much tougher personnel decision presented itself a year later.
LAUER: It was the spring of 2004 when you first learned that American soldiers operating as guards at a prison called Abu Gharib had terribly mistreated prisoners. Can you just give me your first reaction, your first emotions when you heard the--
BUSH: Yeah, I--
BUSH: Sick to my stomach. Not only have they mistreated prisoners, they had disgraced the U.S. military and stained our good name.
LAUER: You said you felt blindsided?
BUSH: Yeah. I-- because I wasn't aware of the graphic nature of the pictures until later on. And some people in the White House expressed that (laughs) my view into the newspapers, which then caused Secretary Rumsfeld to come in and offer his resignation.
BUSH: Yeah, which speaks to his character.
LAUER: When you say, “I knew it would send a powerful signal. I seriously considered accepting his advice. I knew it would send a powerful signal to replace the leader of the Pentagon after such a grave mistake. But a big factor held me back. There was no obvious replacement for Don."
LAUER: Given the damage that Abu Gharib did to our reputation around the world, couldn't you have found someone to occupy that position? Wasn't that the right message to send?
BUSH: Now here's what happens. We're-- we're in the middle of war and if I couldn't have found somebody quickly to replace Secretary Rumsfeld, you'd have been on TV sayin', "There's a vacuum at the Pentagon. It's sending terrible signals to our troops."
LAUER: How would you rate that decision? To keep Rumsfeld in that position when he offered his resignation?
BUSH: I think it was the right decision to make.
He kept Rumsfeld on the job two more years even as Iraq descended into chaos.
LAUER: You write, "Cutting troop levels too quickly was the most important failure of execution of the war."
BUSH: In the beginning of the war and the security situation in Baghdad got-- it was terrible, as-- as you know.
LAUER: The summer of 2006, you write “was the worst period of my presidency when it came to Iraq." For the first time you worried that we might not be successful. Set up the-- what was going on--
LAUER: --at the time.
BUSH: First of all, it was the worst time in my presidency, period. And the reason why is 'cause I thought we were about to lose in Iraq.
Casualties were mounting. His popularity was plummeting. Leaders of his own party were urging him to withdraw some troops and yet...
LAUER: You're thinking of doin' the opposite. You're thinking of, to use a poker expression, doubling down--
LAUER: --in Iraq. What made you think that was going to be successful? Give me your thinking on that.
BUSH: Well, I wasn't sure what would be successful but I knew what would be unsuccessful and that is the current strategy. So I was coming to the conclusion throughout the summer that we needed to try doing differently.
LAUER: Reaction to the surge immediately, one critic called it the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam. And that was a--
BUSH: A Republican. (chuckles)
BUSH: That's right.
LAUER: So in terms of decision points, how hard a decision was the surge for you? Where does it rank?
BUSH: Oh, it was a very difficult decision.
The surge did succeed in reducing... if not eliminating... sectarian violence.
LAUER: Have you been given enough credit, sir, for the success of the surge?
BUSH: I, I don't seek it and--
LAUER: Do you think you deserve it?
BUSH: I think it's an interesting decision that when people analyze it will say, "Well, it's an interesting decision he made." I, it-- the verdict is still out.
The verdict is in on weapons of mass destruction. The main rationale for war. As we all know now, Saddam Hussein didn't have them.
LAUER: Your words. "No one was more sickened or angry than I was when we didn't find weapons of mass destruction." You still have a sickening feeling--
BUSH: I do.
LAUER: --When you think about it.
BUSH: I do.
LAUER: Was there ever any consideration of apologizing to the American people?
BUSH: I mean apologizing would basically say the decision was a wrong decision. And I-- I don't believe it was the wrong decision.
LAUER: If you knew then what you know now--
BUSH: That's right.
LAUER: --You would still go to war in Iraq?
BUSH: I-- first of all didn't have that luxury. You just don't have the luxury when you're President. I will say definitely the world is better off without Saddam Hussein in power, as are 25 million people who now have a chance to live in freedom.
LAUER: While you were President, more than 4,000 Americans lost their lives in Afghanistan and Iraq and yet even when public opinion was going against those wars and when your approval ratings were falling, it seems to me you got enormous support from military families?
BUSH: I did. I did.
LAUER: What did that mean to an embattled Commander-In-Chief?
BUSH: It means a lot because to earn the trust of our military and their families is a high honor for the ommander in Chief. I remember early on, meeting with the Chapman family. John had lost his life and Valerie, the wife, came to see me with their two children. And at the end of our meeting, a tearful and emotional meeting, she send-- hands me a note that says, "John did his job. Now you do yours." That was emotional.
But the Iraq War divided the country and clouded his Presidency and a big storm was coming.
LAUER: You fly right over New Orleans and you look out the window.
BUSH: Yes. Huge mistake.
Decision Points: Part 5
LAUER: Hurricane Katrina. Was it the event that damaged your Presidency more than any other event?
BUSH: I think it reinforced damage that was taking place. I had failed to get Congress to move on Social Security. Iraq was still very difficult. And so Katrina came along and it gave critics an opportunity to-- to kind of undermine the Presidency, I guess you could say.
LAUER: So many times in the book you take pride in the fact that you as a President were someone who-- who went out there and took decisive action.
LAUER: Whether it was controversial or second guessed or not, you took decisive action. And Katrina was one of those examples where you didn't.
BUSH: Yes. The lack of crisp response was a failure at all levels of government.
LAUER: Yeah, you're tough in the book on the former governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco. You're tough on Ray Nagin. You say after four days it was clear to you that the state and local leaders in Louisiana could not lead.
BUSH: Well, I-- I don't think I was tough. I think I was fair. I'm down there and I say to-- a room full of Louisiana politicians, "Who's in charge of security?" I say this to the mayor and he says, "The governor." And I say to the governor, "Who's in charge of security?" And I get no answer.
LAUER: And then you went on to say she dragged your feet, for a couple of days, could not decide whether she would allow you or request you to send government troops in?
BUSH: Correct. And so here's the decision I faced. In order to restore order some said, "Send in federal troops." The problem is unless those troops are requested by the governor, and/or I declare an insurrection--
BUSH: Those troops would have to go into what appeared to be a very violent situation without the ability to defend themselves.
LAUER: What fascinated me in the book, you actually say you went through the thought process, "How's it going to look if-- if a Republican President usurps the authority of a Democratic governor and declares an insurrection in a largely African American city."
BUSH: Yeah, it wouldn't have gone down. It would have just been like kerosene on a fire.
LAUER: I'm curious and I'm not doing any armchair psychology here, but I'm--
LAUER: --Curious. By this time in your Presidency, had you heard so much criticism that in some ways you had become a little gun shy?
BUSH: No, not at all, because shortly thereafter I made a decision to send more troops into Iraq. I'm the kind of personality that the tougher it got the more willing I was (chuckles) to make a tough call.
LAUER: Let's get to the picture that we may have seen more of you (laughter) in the last couple years of your Presidency than any other picture. You're sitting in Air Force One, flying back toward Washington. You fly right over New Orleans and you look out the window.
BUSH: Yes. Huge mistake.
LAUER: Yeah, it made you look so out of touch.
BUSH: Detached and uncaring. No question about it. And--
LAUER: Whose fault was it?
BUSH: It's always my fault. I should have touched down in Baton Rouge, met with the governor, and, you know, walked out and said, "I hear you." I mean, "We know. We understand. And we're gonna, you know, help the state and help the locals, governments with as much resources as needed." And-- and then got back on a flight up to Washington. I did not do that and paid a price for it.
LAUER: The other moment where there seemed to be a huge disconnect between you and the people, especially the people on the ground, was famously with FEMA director Mike Brown.
BUSH: Yeah. (laughs)
LAUER: You know, we were all watching and we were broadcasting images of misery.
BUSH: No, I know. I know.
He says the comment came after he met with the governors of Alabama and Mississippi, both Republicans, who both praised Brown.
BUSH: I tend to boost people's spirits during difficult times. And these two governors are sayin, "This guy's doin' a good job" and of course I say…
BUSH (original press footage): Brownie, you are doing a heck of a job.
BUSH: Basically what I was sayin' it-- "Good job. You're doin' what we expect you to do." The problem is--
LAUER: That's not what we were seein'.
BUSH: Yeah, exactly (laughs). I understand. I understand. I mean the only thing I can tell you is you're right.
LAUER: And you-- and you write that critics turned your words of encouragement into a club to bludgeon you?
BUSH: They did. Yeah.
LAUER: With good reason?
BUSH: Yeah, I mean I-- you know, as President sometimes your intentions get overwhelmed by perception. And my intention was simply to say to somebody who's workin' hard, "Keep workin' hard." And it turns out that-- those words became a club for people to say, "Wait, this guy's out of touch."
LAUER: About a week after the storm hit NBC aired a telethon asking for help for the victims of KatrinAa. We had celebrities coming in to ask for money. And I remember it vividly 'cause I hosted it. And at one part of the evening I introduced Kanye West. Were you watching?
LAUER: You remember what he said?
BUSH: Yes, I do. He called me a racist.
LAUER: Well, what he said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
BUSH: That's, “ he's a racist”. And I didn't appreciate it then. I don't appreciate it now. It's one thing to say, you know, "I don't appreciate the way he's-- handles his business." It's another thing to say, "This man's a racist." I resent it. It's not true, and it was one of the most disgusting moments in my Presidency.
LAUER: This from the book: "I faced a lot of criticism as President. I didn't like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all time low."
BUSH: Yeah. I still feel that way as-- as you read those words. I felt 'em when I heard 'em, felt 'em when I wrote 'em and I felt 'em when I'm listening to 'em.
LAUER: You say you told Laura at the time it was the worst moment of your Presidency?
LAUER: I wonder if some people are gonna read that, now that you've written it, and they might give you some heat for that. And the reason is this--
BUSH: Don't care.
LAUER: Well, here's the reason. You're not saying that the worst moment in your Presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana. You're saying it was when someone insulted you because of that.
BUSH: No, I-- that-- and I also make it clear that the misery in Louisiana affected me deeply as well. There's a lot of tough moments in the book. And it was a disgusting moment, pure and simple.
It may have been a low point, but soon he faced a different kind of storm.
BUSH: When you're the President and somebody says, “if don't do something strong there may be a depression," it gets your attention.
The financial crisis: next.
Decision Points: Part 6
In the Fall of 2008, George W. Bush's top economic advisers told him that the banking system, and therefore the whole U.S. economy, was about to collapse.
BUSH: I'm paraphrasing at this point, "You better do somethin' big, 'cause if we don't, you're liable to oversee a depression." So the decision point here is, do you adhere to your philosophy and say, "Let 'em all fail." You know, they pay--
LAUER: Free market--
BUSH: For yeah, free market. Or do you take taxpayers' money and inject it into the system in hopes that you prevent a depression? And I chose the latter.
LAUER: Yeah, you write that, "You know, I abandoned the free market to save the free--"
BUSH: I did.
LAUER: “--market system."
BUSH: I did. And a lot of people and I also put in there my friends in Midland are gonna say, "What happened to Bush?"
LAUER: Yeah. Where was that conservative?
BUSH: Yeah, what happened? But when you're the President and somebody says, "Hey, if you don't do something strong, there may be a depression." It gets your attention… at least it got mine.
LAUER: You went with the TARP program.
BUSH: We did.
LAUER: A lot of people now call it the bank bailout. And they hate it.
BUSH: Yeah, they do hate it. I can understand that. Look, the idea of spending taxpayers' money to give to Wall Street and the banks to save them… a lot of people think they created the crisis in the first place and so I can understand the angst. But in my case, I wasn't worried about angst, personal angst or contradiction. I was worried about the economy goin' down. And I believe TARP saved the economy.
LAUER: You said Wall Street got drunk, and yet I'm wondering did you do enough? During the time of your Presidency did you do enough to take the keys of the car--
BUSH: Yeah. I also—
LAUER: --Away from Wall Street?
BUSH: Yeah, I say Wall Street got drunk and we got the hangover to complete the sentence.
BUSH: And yeah, I-- I frankly don't think this is a crisis of the lack of regulation.
LAUER: If you were President again, though, and TARP came up again, you would do the exact same thing?
BUSH: Absolutely, given the same circumstances. The other thing about TARP that people forget is that we structured it so that the gov-- or the people would be repaid with a really good rate of return. And as it turns out, that aspect of TARP, that's what happened.
LAUER: You know what else people seem to forget? A recent poll said-- they asked people who'd, who created TARP? Fifty percent of the people said Barack Obama.
BUSH: Oh yeah. Fifty percent of the people were wrong 'cause it happened on my watch.
It was striking that in all our time with George W. Bush, he never criticized Barack Obama… barely mentioned his name.
LAUER: Mr. President, you have-- remained mostly silent, largely silent over the last couple of years. Why did you remain silent?
BUSH: Well, for two reasons. One: I just didn't want to get out there anymore. I didn't want to get back into what I call "the swamp." I was trying-- I'm trying to regain a sense of anonymity. And the other reason why is I don't think it's good for the Presidency for a former President to be opining about his successor. President Obama's got plenty of critics and-- and I'm just not gonna be one.
LAUER: When you left office, President Bush, your popularity numbers were around 30 percent, give or take, depending on the poll. You say it--
LAUER: --It didn't bother you?
BUSH: No, it didn't.
LAUER: You know, I try to personalize that. I-- I've been doin' this job for 14 years. And if after 14 years, only 30 percent of people who've watched this show think I did a good job--
BUSH: They'll fire ya.
LAUER: Well, it's gonna hurt like hell.
BUSH: I don't think it does. No. Because I-- I also was, as you just mentioned, at one time over 90 percent. I didn't take it seriously then. I don't take it-- didn't take it seriously when I left office. Somebody walked up to me the other day and said, "Congratulations. Your popularity is way up since you left office." And my answer was, "So what?" Seriously. I mean if you chase popularity, you're chasing a moment. You're chasing a poof of air.
LAUER: Final question. You know, you've said that history is not ready to judge you yet.
BUSH: (Laughs) That's right.
LAUER: It's gonna take time.
LAUER: When it does come about, President Bush, do you think you'll be judged a success or a failure?
BUSH: I hope I'm judged a success. But I-- (chuckles) I'm gonna be dead, Matt, when they finally figure it out. And I'm comfortable knowing that I gave it my all, that I love America and that-- and I know it was an honor to serve.