WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush suddenly saw that he could very well be the 21st century's Herbert Hoover.
So after analyzing the imperiled economy earlier this year, he said, he "decided I didn't want to be the president during a depression greater than the Great Depression . . . so we moved and moved hard."
Bush offered Thursday what he dubbed "reflections by a guy who's headed out of town" to a friendly American Enterprise Institute audience at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. He spoke without notes and took questions for more than an hour.
The genial side of Bush, which has been more evident in these last days of his presidency, was on display. He sat back in his chair, struck a conversational tone and casually talked about his White House years.
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However, the more familiar principled — or stubborn — Bush also was evident. He conceded no serious mistakes and offered passionate, familiar defenses of his most controversial policies. He insisted, for instance, that national security matters were open to free, full debate, despite reports that he and his top advisers were dismissive of those who were skeptical about his Iraq policies.
Asked if he encouraged people to ask hard questions, Bush said, "absolutely."
He didn't go into detail, saying that "sometimes issues are easy to resolve, where the national security adviser and the domestic policy adviser can come in and say, 'We discussed the issue internally, Mr. President, and we all agree.'''
On "matters of war," he said, "there's differences of opinion." He cited 2007's "surge" of additional U.S. troops in Iraq. "There was a lot of different opinions on the surge, and that's the way it should be," he said.
On issue after issue, Bush blamed his stumbles on Washington's convoluted ways. Record spending during his administration often resulted because "without the line item veto, the president's in an awkward position when it comes to budgeting."
No Child Left Behind, his signature education legislation, has been criticized for lack of funding, but Bush had no complaints, insisting, "The basic principle inherent in No Child Left Behind, the philosophy of it, remained very much intact in the bill, and it's working."
About his only major regrets included an inability to set a gentler tone in Washington and to win easier confirmation of judicial nominees.
"I have been disappointed at times about the politics of personal destruction," said the president who vowed eight years ago to be a uniter. "I came with the idea of changing the tone in Washington and frankly didn't do a very good job of it."
One reason: "War brings out a lot of heated rhetoric and a lot of emotion. I fully understand that. I know that's the case. But surely we can do a better job in Washington of treating each other with respect."
Bush said, however, that he's not guilty, explaining: "I don't want to be a self-serving fellow, but I have never used my position as president to personally denigrate somebody."
Most on his attention Thursday was focused on the nation's reeling economy. The president recalled how, for weeks earlier this year, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson had been calling and issuing dire warnings of financial industry collapse.
Finally, they "came in and said, the financial markets are completely frozen, and if we don't do something about it, it is conceivable we will see a depression greater than the Great Depression."
Bailouts and financial rescue plans quickly followed.
Bush had been thinking hard about his legacy for some time. He'd been consulting with historians, making final tours of friendly countries and hoping that history would vindicate him.
The failing economy posed a monstrous new threat, and Bush said he wasn't comfortable with presiding over government takeovers and taking stakes in financial institutions. His unease was apparent on Thursday.
"This is a difficult time for a free-market person," he said. "Under ordinary circumstances, failed entities should be allowed to fail."
He said, however: "I have concluded these are not ordinary circumstances, for a lot of reasons."
Bush insisted that one key reason was consumers, and he realizes they're still wary of government bailouts.
"What makes this issue difficult to explain is, to the average guy, why should I be using my money because of excesses on Wall Street? And I understand that frustration," Bush said. "I completely understand why people are nervous about it."
Will the bailouts work? Why not normal bankruptcy?
Bush again exposed his discomfort. "Under normal circumstances, no question, the bankruptcy court is the best way to sort through credit and debt and restructuring," he said. "No question. These aren't normal circumstances. That's the problem."
He made no predictions about when or if he'll be vindicated, but appeared convinced that he's been right, even though voters repudiated his party in last month's elections.
"We'll come back," he said of Republicans as he chuckled. "And I'll be out there, the old sage, sitting around, you know (saying), 'If you only did it this way.'"
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