Mr. President, when historians look back at 2005, how do you want them to remember you?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I really want them to be writing about the compassion and courage of the American people. I think about Katrina and Rita, devastating storms that obliterated a significant part of our country. People had to leave their homes, leave their possessions, leave their pets behind. And in their trauma and personal tragedy, they found a compassionate America with open arms. The country understands we’re at war [in Iraq], and there’s a debate, which is good. It’s what we stand for, the ability of people to express their opinions.
Mrs. Bush, as you look back, what are you thinking about?
MRS. BUSH: Well, I’ve had a very, very interesting year. I’ve traveled to Afghanistan and to Africa and Egypt and Jordan. I’ve hosted a conference on helping America’s youth. And I’ll never forget a lot of the people I’ve met—the young fathers who want to be involved in the lives of their children because their dads weren’t involved in their lives. And Father Gregory, a priest in Los Angeles who started Homeboy Industries to help young men and women escape gangs and move into a productive life. Four of those former gang members came to the White House. It was the first time they’d ever worn a suit.
Is there anything you would do differently, looking back?
THE PRESIDENT: One of the things about this job is you really don’t get to have a do-over. You deal with the issues at hand.
Do you wish you could have a do-over?
THE PRESIDENT: Look, obviously there are areas where we can improve. Hurricane Katrina is one. The important thing is to learn from mistakes and not only prepare this Presidency, but future Presidencies, for how to deal with a category-five storm.
It’s been three months now since Katrina. Are you happy with where the victims are now?
THE PRESIDENT: I am never satisfied until all questions are answered and people are taken care of to the best extent possible. There is an issue, obviously, of housing. Our government has no intention of putting people out on the streets. What we’ve got to do is make sure that our representatives on the ground explain to the people in hotels that there is help, to help them move from hotel to a housing unit of one kind or another. We’ve got to work not only with the state and local government but create the conditions so that the economy can come back, and that there’s jobs and opportunities for people. This storm was so devastating that it’s going to take a while.
Some of the most poignant Katrina stories were about the precious things people clung to as they fled. What would you bring with you?
THE PRESIDENT: Barney [laughter]. I’ll never forget being near the levee that broke and seeing this white dog come running up. It really broke my heart to think about a displaced family wondering about their dog. We all fall in love with our dogs—at least, I have a tendency to fall in love with the dogs. I told the man there at the Coast Guard base, “I hope you’re feeding this dog, and get the tag, and when the records are available, contact the owner.”
MRS. BUSH: When we got to meet people in shelters around the country, I think what we learned [is that] material things are not that important. What children need are the rituals families have. Whether or not they still have the ornaments to put on the tree, they still can have the same meals at their holidays. They can still be with each other and maybe read the same stories.
Mr. President, back to the White House, there have been reports that you’ve felt let down by Karl Rove and Scooter Libby for their role in the leak controversy. Is that true?
THE PRESIDENT: No. I expect a high standard of ethics, I expect there to be a full disclosure, and I expect people to be judged innocent until proven guilty. I am a person who gives everybody the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise.
Do you feel Rove is still as close a confidant and adviser?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, yes, he’s a very close confidant. This is an ongoing investigation and before I make a judgment, we’ll find out what the facts are.
Can you talk to us about meeting with the families of fallen soldiers? What is the hardest part of that?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, the hardest part is knowing that a decision I made has put their loved one in harm’s way. I do my very best to listen to an aggrieved mom or wife or dad. We cry. We hug. Most of all, I listen to the stories of their loved one. I then explain that I am determined to see this mission through for the good of the country, for peace, and that their loved one’s memory will be honored by achieving our objectives.
With 160,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, can you say you expect to bring that troop level down next year?
THE PRESIDENT: Certainly. It’s very clear that the commanders on the ground asked for an increase from roughly 137,000 for the elections [on Dec. 15]. The intention is, after the Iraqi elections, to reduce that troop level.
How quickly do you think you can bring people home?
THE PRESIDENT: It’s important for the American people to know that the size of the troop presence in Iraq will be made upon the recommendation of commanders on the ground.
Some Democrats and opponents of the war have said that you essentially lied when you sent troops into battle. What do you say to such an accusation?
THE PRESIDENT: I say that leaders of the Democrats looked at the same intelligence I did and came to the same conclusion?
To be called a liar is a pretty tough thing.
THE PRESIDENT: The name-calling in Washington is unnecessary. The American people don’t want name-calling, they want solutions.
Mrs. Bush, how do you handle that sort of affront to your husband’s character?
MRS. BUSH: You know, we’ve been in politics for a really long time. Our sense of ourselves isn’t affected by what we know is not true. You just can’t spend time worrying about that, and we really don’t.
You’ve had a lot on your plate—hurricanes, the Supreme Court, the leak investigation. Mere mortals would be forgiven for crawling under the covers and grabbing a drink.
THE PRESIDENT: I feel challenged, I feel very optimistic. Part of the excitement of being President is to deal with challenges and lead this nation. You know, they say the President is in a bubble, and to a certain extent, you are. On the other hand, it gives you an interesting perspective. I’m able to watch this country respond, and my spirits are high because I’m lifted up by the greatness of the people of America. It’s an amazing country.
Mrs. Bush, how do you cope with your husband being under such pressure?
MRS. BUSH: We have a very normal life. We are both creatures of routine, and I think that’s very helpful. We both like to work out. We go to church on the weekends at Camp David with the troops, the people who are posted there. We know them. We know their families. We’ve laughed at their children in the Christmas pageant every year.
THE PRESIDENT: The other thing we’re able to do is stay in touch with our friends. We’ve really got some wonderful friends that were buddies before I was elected governor, and they’ll be great friends after the Presidency. They don’t spend a lot of time analyzing the editorial pages when they’re around us. So it’s an opportunity to relax. They are just down-to-earth. And they look at this White House and they go, my goodness, how did he get here? [Laughter]
With Jenna teaching grade school and Barbara just back from her hospital volunteer work with AIDS patients in South Africa, do you feel your daughters have found their calling?
THE PRESIDENT: I’ll tell you what I feel: I feel I am a proud father of two humanitarians who are serving others at the age of 24.
MRS. BUSH: They’re doing great. They’ve turned into absolutely beautiful people, inside and out. We’re both proud of them.
This time next year, what do you hope will be the biggest news?
THE PRESIDENT: I will hope for what I hoped for last year. It’s a stressful time for the American people. We’re doing some hard things. My hope is that there be peace of mind and peace in the world.