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Bush: 'Referendum on leadership'

NBC's Tom Brokaw speaks with President Bush as Election Day approaches.
President Bush talks with Tom Brokaw.
President Bush talks with Tom Brokaw.Dateline NBC
/ Source: Dateline NBC

On the final Sunday of the campaign, President Bush crisscrossed Florida, the state where he eked out a 537-vote victory four years ago to win the presidency. We began the day by traveling with him from Orlando to Miami where the president went to church. Before appearing at a huge rally, on board Air Force One, I asked the president for a preview of election night.

Tom Brokaw: "This is my map I used on election night down in front of the desk. There it is. Give me a surprise on election night off this map. We all know about the battleground states. Do you think there's a surprise in there somewhere for you?"

President George Bush: "You're trying to make me a prognosticator?

Brokaw: "Yeah."

Bush: "A pundit?"

Brokaw: "Yeah. We'll put it right below. We'll just superimpose it."

Bush: "Thank you. I don't know. Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Wisconsin -- these are all states I did not win last time that I believe I’m going to carry this time. Yesterday in Minnesota at a huge rally in Minneapolis, the governor whispered in my ear ‘we're going to win.’ So I feel confident and feel comfortable that we're making progress in states I did not win last time."

Brokaw: "Do you think we'll know Tuesday night given all these disputes across the country?"

Bush: "I certainly hope so. I think it is vital that whichever one of us wins that night. Because it’s really important. People are watching this election closely from around the world… I do think it's important for us to get the election over with and get on with the people's business. We'll see how it goes Tuesday night, but I really think it’s important not to have a world of lawsuits that stop the will of the people from going forward."

Later, the president sat down with me for an extended interview

Brokaw: "Mr. President, is this a referendum on Iraq primarily this election?"

Bush: "I don't think so. I think it's a referendum on leadership. I think it's a referendum on who can set goals, who’s got a vision for peace and security for our country, who's got a vision for a compassionate and hopeful America. A leader must be steadfast and strong. A leader must make decisions on principle. Tactics change, strategies change, but principles should never change. And I think the American people are going to decide which person, which human being has got the capability of leading this nation forward into what, I believe, is going to be a hopeful 21st century."

Brokaw: "One of our principal allies in that part of the world is the president of Pakistan, Musharrif. He's a great friend of yours. When I asked him if invading Iraq made it worse for the United States and that part of the world, he said, quite simply, "Yes."

Bush: "Yeah. Well, I just disagree. I think my first duty is to protect the American people.  And I think one who would argue that the world has – would have been better off with Saddam Hussein in power simply doesn't understand the nature of the world in which we live today."

Brokaw: "Mr. President in the opening of his debate, Dick Cheney, your vice president, said that if I had it to recommend all over again, I would recommend exactly the same course of action for Iraq. Even if you knew that there was no storage of WMD in Iraq, even if you knew that the Republican Guard could fade into the north and the west with their weapons and mount a very effective insurgency against us, even if you knew that we didn't have enough troops to secure all the sights in Iraq necessary to be secure at the time, you would recommend exactly the same course of action?"

Bush: "Well, Tom, the bigger question should we have removed Saddam Hussein in the first place?"

Brokaw: "But then the answer is what happens afterwards as well –"

Bush: "But, that's easy to second guess. I've never known you to be a Monday morning quarterback like this. Of course we can look back, and history will judge whether we could have done something differently. But you have asked me the question in the context of really should we have removed Saddam Hussein in the first place? And the answer is. Yes, sir. We should've… History will judge whether we could have done things differently after we went into Baghdad. We planned for a lot of contingencies. We planned for major disruptions in oil supplies. We planned for refugee flows. We planned for mass hunger. In a war, not everything goes exactly as planned. But the fundamental question at the heart, to me, of what you're asking, was did we make the right course of action? Did we do the right thing to secure America? And, yes we did."

Brokaw: "This is not Monday morning quarterbacking, on the part of The Economist."

Bush: "I didn't mean to accuse you. I don't want to insult..."

Brokaw: "That's okay, I'm a grownup here…"

Bush: "Okay."

Brokaw: "But, these are legitimate and important questions for the American people. The Economist, which is a well known conservative international publication, said invading Iraq was not a mistake, but changing the regime so incompetently was a huge mistake. It's cost hundreds of lives of American soldiers and thousands of Iraqis. And The Economist then reluctantly endorsed your opponent, Senator Kerry, saying it's a choice between the incompetent and the incoherent and they went with the incoherent."

Bush: "Well, if I worried about editorials, I'd be a nervous wreck. My job is not to try to win the kudos of those who write the editorials. My job is to protect the American people. And we are making progress in Iraq. Iraq is going to have elections. Freedom is moving, freedom is marching forward and the world is better off. And the question in this campaign is who has the ability to protect America. Who has the goal, and the concept and the strategies to keep this country secure. And when it's all said and done I believe the American people will decide it's me."

Brokaw: "The other issue that has developed quite dramatically in the last week or so is the disappearance of hundreds of tons of explosives from an ammunition depot in Iraq."

Bush: "Well, first of all, there's a lot of data, a lot of conflicting information about the ammunitions sites. What is a fact is that we have secured or destroyed 400,000 tons of ammunition. The accusation made that this was a sealed sight is being contradicted by a marine major who said he was sent into the site to destroy the ammunition there. But, what is important about this issue, and I think it's illustrative in this campaign is that my opponent jumped on the issue before all the facts were in. The Commander in Chief has got to wait to collect the facts before making accusations for political reasons."

Brokaw: "Mr. President, Osama bin Laden is back, on videotape at least. How can the fact that he is alive and at large be seen as anything other than a failure of your administration?"

Bush: "Well, first, he's not going to intimidate or decide this election. And secondly, we are systematically destroying al Qaida… and we'll eventually get Osama bin Laden. In the meantime, we're destroying his network. Slowly but surely, systematically destroying him."

Brokaw: "Tell me about the role of the economy in this election."

Bush: "The national unemployment rate is 5.4 percent. That's lower than the average rate of the '70s, '80s and '90s. And 1.9 million new jobs in 13 months is a good sign that we're moving forward. And the fundamental question for the American people is, who's got the strategy to keep the economy growing.  And I tell the people, ‘I'm going to keep your taxes low.  We'll do some on regulations.  We'll do something' about these lawsuits. And my opponent's going to raise taxes. He is. He's going to raise taxes on the job creators. Most small businesses in America pay individual income taxes. And when you run up the top two brackets, you're taxing' the job creators. I think that's bad economic policy to do that."

Brokaw: "I asked John Kerry the other day if there were any Republican ideas that he thought were good ideas that he would invoke if he were elected. And he said, ‘Yes. I think that faith based charities, for example, is a good idea.’ Are there any Democratic ideas that you think have real merit?"

Bush: "Well, I've embraced Americorp, which was an idea of my predecessor.  And Americorp is something that I've supported and helped get funding for in the Congress. So Americorp is a good program and it's providing good results."

Brokaw: "On election day, how much difference do you think for your campaign the place of Evangelical Christians in this country will make?"

Bush: "You know, you want me to be a pundit and I'm not a very good pundit. I just hope my voters show up.  And I'll win if they do. But that's why don't you leave that to the people who are going to analyze the election. I think if the people who understand my policies, understand that I share their values, understand that this world is getting better because of the firm action that the United States has taken. And if they show up, we'll win."