Historian in Chief: Bush Frames Legacy in Farewell Speech

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."

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"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."

Bush Predicts Historical Legacies

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."

Bush could not help but make two historical declarations of his own about his administration during an appearance at the State Department earlier in the day.

"History will say that Condi Rice was one of the great secretaries of state our country has ever had," he said.

A few minutes later, as he awarded the Medal of Freedom to U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, Bush said, "When the story of this transformation is written, historians will note the extraordinary partnership between two exceptional men -- Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. As the general carried out a surge of military forces to improve security, the ambassador led a civilian surge to improve everyday life."

As the nation struggles to bail out the financial and auto industries, and millions of Americans lose their jobs, the president reminded them that his administration brought 52 months of uninterrupted job creation, the longest in the nation's history.

The president also cited accomplishments at home, including improved student test scores, and more affordable prescription drug prices.

Gracious Toward Obama; Wistful With Staff

Bush has displayed a graciousness toward the incoming Obama administration that White House officials say they have taken care to foster, pointing to a peaceful transition of power between opposing parties that is sometimes described as the envy of more volatile nations.

In his farewell speech, Bush included a tip of the hat to the next commander in chief.

"In a tradition dating back to our founding, the presidency will pass to a successor chosen by you, the American people," he said. "Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose story reflects the enduring promise of our land. This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation. And I join all Americans in offering best wishes to President-elect Obama, his wife Michelle and their two beautiful girls.

Bush ended citing the "privilege of a lifetime" -- serving as president.

"And so, my fellow Americans, for the final time," he said, "good night."

White House officials described the president as wistful as a staff assembled over eight years parts ways. Each day over the past week, White House officials have sent farewell e-mails to friends and colleagues, in a phased withdrawal that is expected to leave only a skeleton staff to witness the transition of power Jan. 20.

"He is sad, in some ways," White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

The Bushes will have little to move out on Tuesday. First lady Laura Bush has already sent her books and many other belongings to Texas.

"Mrs. Bush did express that she knew when she moved here that she would have lovely historic pieces to choose from, so she did not bring a lot of furniture," said Sally McDonough, communications director for Mrs. Bush. "She did bring a piece that was important to her -- and it is a chest of drawers that belonged to President Bush's grandmother. Mrs. Bush has done a lot of her packing and all the boxes are packed and moved."

Over the next couple days, White House staffers will go through the time-consuming process of turning in their passes, coded lapel pins, BlackBerries, cell phones and security clearances. At 9 p.m. Friday, the highest level staffers will turn in their gear and the West Wing will become something of a ghost town.

Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, Gillespie and Perino will remain on standby.

On Tuesday, Special Agent Donald White will shadow Bush, sit in the customary front shotgun seat of the limousine, and guard the president until noon.

Then, White will step over to position behind Obama.

ABC News' Ann Compton contributed to this report.

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