“You’d think, on your way out, they’d only want one picture,” joked the President, even as he gamely struck several poses with his family—newly expanded to include daughter Jenna’s husband, Henry Hager—in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House residence. Famously impatient, George W. Bush took his time with this final PEOPLE year-end portrait and interview. When he met with editor Larry Hackett and Washington, D.C., correspondent Sandra Sobieraj Westfall on Nov. 29, the conversation was by turns lighthearted and serious, as he reflected on two tumultuous terms in office.
Cast yourself back to your Inauguration in 2001. What did you think then your presidency would be about, and how does that stack up now?
THE PRESIDENT: In 2001 I was focused on getting a good team together and dealing with an economy that was headed into a recession, as well as a public education system that needed serious reform. Little did I know that on Sept. 11, 2001, our world would change and so would my presidency. I was aware that the unexpected was going to happen. I just wasn’t, obviously, at the time aware of how big the unexpected would be.
Are there regrets, goals you could not achieve because of what happened?
THE PRESIDENT: Two major issues I was passionate about were immigration reform and Social Security reform. I would argue that both those issues didn’t happen because of raw politics or risk aversion.
Which moments from the last eight years do you revisit most often?
THE PRESIDENT: I definitely think about the families I’ve met of the fallen soldiers—about the compassion, love and determination of the families, to make sure that the Commander-in-Chief hears their stories and knows their pride.
I think about throwing out that pitch at the World Series on [Oct. 30] 2001. My heart was racing when I got to the mound. Didn’t want to bounce it. Didn’t want to let the fans down. My heart was pumping so hard, I wasn’t sure if I could lift my arm. I never felt that anxious any other time during my presidency, curiously enough.
The country is in tough times—the credit crisis, layoffs, the war. Are Americans worse off now than they were eight years ago? Does any part of you feel you let folks down?
THE PRESIDENT: I think this country is much more secure today. One of the accomplishments of this administration is to prevent another attack on our homeland and leave in place the tools necessary for our professionals to protect the American people. In terms of the economy, this administration has taken some extraordinary measures to make sure that the financial system doesn’t melt down and to make sure that the free enterprise system is strong. We go through economic difficulties in our country, and we’ll come out better after this one.
Mrs. Bush, are you hurt more by public opinion of your husband than he is?
MRS. LAURA BUSH: Probably. But both of us have a very strong sense of who we are. In a lot of ways, that’s just chatter out there.
THE PRESIDENT: Look, I’ve been popular and not so popular. But the thing that matters most in life is not one’s popularity but principles. And I am not going to sacrifice my principles on the altar of political popularity. If you chase popularity, you’ll be a lousy President. If you make decisions based upon sound principles, you’ve done your job.
Could you have done this job without your wife?
THE PRESIDENT: No, because Laura provides great comfort. She reminds me of realities, like, “Hey, buddy, you volunteered to do this job.” [laughter] Oftentimes Presidents fall prey to self-pity. There’s nothing more pathetic than self-pity. Laura has been very good about bolstering my spirits.
Jenna and Barbara, how have you seen your parents change over the last eight years?
MS. JENNA HAGER: Eight years ago my dad was a very popular Texas governor…. I think I was a little naive about how people would treat him [here]. But he’s never wavered in his decisions and he’s the same as he was when we were little, his ethics. So that’s something to be proud of in itself.
MS. BARBARA BUSH: They’ve stayed the same to us and they have the same ethics that they had all their life.
THE PRESIDENT: I thought you’d say my hair got grayer. [laughter]
MS. HAGER: He’s been under a lot of stress, so we’re ready for him to go back to Texas and be warmly received.
Mr. President, does Sarah Palin have a future as a national GOP figure?
THE PRESIDENT: Sure. She was on the stage, and I thought acquitted herself just fine. She will be around.
Was part of you happy to witness history, the election of the first African-American President?
THE PRESIDENT: No, I wanted John McCain to win. But once the verdict was in, I was pleased about this: A lot of people in America did not think they’d ever see an African-American President. And they were elated to see Barack Obama elected. And I think that’s good for the country, that people now have renewed faith in the system.
Barbara, Jenna, any advice for Sasha and Malia Obama?
MS. HAGER: Well, they’re a lot younger than we are, cuter than we are. We’re old news.
MS. BUSH: Even the puppy is going to be cuter. [laughter] We gave them a tour [of the White House residence], showed them our little secret, fun places. There’s, sort of, trap doors—
MS. HAGER: —that little kids are fascinated by. It’s a house that can inspire a lot of games and imagination. One of them said, “This will be a great house for hide-and-go-seek.”
Henry, what’s it like spending time with your in-laws?
MR. HAGER: It’s been great, because they can be completely down-to-earth, and family time really is family time.
Do you and your father-in-law hang out together?
MR. HAGER: We do. We bike together. He usually leaves me. [laughter] He’s a very good biker.
What are you most looking forward to about life after the White House?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s hard to tell, hard to imagine what it’s like to go from 100 miles an hour to 5. I’m going to want to build a policy institute at Southern Methodist, probably write a book. And beyond that, I’m open for suggestions. [laughter]
MRS. BUSH: I look forward to a more normal life. I look forward to the next house that we’re going to have, that will be ours, with our own things in it. As much as I’ve loved this, I’m ready to move on to that next step.