President Bush became historian in chief Thursday night, delivering a farewell speech designed to frame his presidency as an era of accomplishment amid challenges, and contesting his critics' more dour assessments that are reflected in sagging public opinion polls.
The president's five-page, 13-minute speech was intended to be "optimistic and future oriented," White House counselor Ed Gillespie said, aimed more at the American people than historians.
But during his farewell address the president seemed to have an eye on history, focusing on his achievements during what White House officials described as a "time of great consequences," and another on how his exodus sets up the incoming presidency of Barack Obama.
"You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made," Bush said, "but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
"I think he would like to be remembered as someone who stuck by his principles," Gillespie said in a White House briefing, "understanding that in making tough decisions not everyone is going to agree with the tough decisions that he's made."
The speech was the 33rd prime-time address of the Bush presidency. It was the swan song of a departing chief executive who will make no more public appearances until he fulfills a quadrennial tradition by meeting newly sworn-in President Barack Obama on the White House's north portico Tuesday afternoon.
President and Mrs. Bush will fly to Camp David Friday afternoon for a final weekend in the rustic seclusion of the presidential retreat in Maryland.
In choosing to bookend his term with a final address, Bush follows the tradition of Presidents Reagan and Clinton. On the other hand, President Carter left office without delivering a farewell address.
After initially questioning whether to give a farewell speech, White House officials said Bush became "very involved" in assembling the unusually terse message.
Departing from a tradition of Oval Office farewell speeches, Bush gave his final address in the East Room of the White House so he could single out four individuals from a small audience to thank as examples of what Gillespie described as "grace, courage and compassion."
The president, who leaves with some of the most consistently low popularity ratings in recorded history, due largely to the unpopularity of the Iraq War, has in his waning days challenged critics who suggest Iraq was a distraction from the wider war on terror.
"As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11 -- but I never did," he said. "Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe."
Echoing an oft-stated theme of his administration, the president added, "There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
In a day fraught with historical predictions, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice predicted history would be kind to Bush.
"As the din of debate and argument fades, things that were once thought to be impossible are remembered years later as, well, inevitable," Rice said. "That is why, Mr. President, history's judgment is rarely the same as today's headlines."