Former President Bush Admits Mistakes of Presidency, Says He's 'Not a Racist'

Former President George Bush appears on 'Oprah' today.

November 9, 2010, 11:32 AM

Nov. 9, 2010 — -- Former President George W. Bush stood firmly behind many controversial decisions made during his presidency in an interview with Oprah Winfrey today, defending his response to the Sept. 11 attacks and adding that the worst insult he received in his two terms in office came from rapper Kanye West.

Appearing on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" to promote his new memoir, "Decision Points," Bush said he hoped to stay out of the public eye in the future and discussed everything from his struggles with alcohol to coping with the name-calling and criticism that dominated much of his eight years as president.

"I'm sure it hurt my daughters and wife," Bush said of the various names he was called during his eight years in the White House, including "Nazi" and "Satan." "But it didn't hurt me."

"I knew what I was doing, and I felt so strongly about some of the decisions I was making. I felt like history would understand them ultimately," he said. "If I had allowed critics to affect me during the presidency -- the name-calling -- I don't think I would have been doing my job as president."

Bush was widely criticized following Hurricane Katrina for the perception that his administration was slow to respond to the deadly 2005 Gulf Coast disaster because those who were killed and hurt by the storm were mostly minorities.

"It hurt," Bush said. "You can disagree with my politics, but don't ever accuse me of being a racist."

West made headlines in the storm's aftermath when he said during a televised fundraiser, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

"To accuse me of being a racist is disgusting. I feel strongly about it today just like I did then. You don't call a man a racist," he said. "I'm confident my heart is right on that issue."

"I put policy in place that I really thought helped all races in America, and I don't understand why anyone would accuse me of being a racist. It speaks to the ugliness of the American political scene."

But he admitted that he "made a mistake" by flying over the ravaged areas of the Gulf Coast after Katrina rather than landing and touring on foot, saying that at the time he was trying to minimize the amount of resources a visit by a president would require.

"It looked like a nuclear bomb had hit the coast. I shouldn't have flown over and looked. I made a mistake. I should have landed," said Bush. "The problem is that when the president lands resources are taken off the task at hand to protect the president, and I was worried about landing and being criticized for taking resources."

Bush was also criticized for waiting several minutes before getting up and leaving the classroom of Florida schoolchildren he was visiting when he learned of the terrorist attacks on 9/11. He told Winfrey that he consciously tried to "remain calm," a characteristic he believes is important for every leader facing a crisis.

"I waited for an appropriate moment to get up and leave," said Bush of his reaction in the classroom in Sarasota.

George Bush Writes about Experience on 9/11

Despite being told not to return to Washington, D.C., after the attacks by his advisers and even by then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush told Winfrey that he was adamant about returning to the White House and did just that, acting against "everyone's advice.

"I said, 'I'm coming home,'" recalled Bush. "There was a lot of uncertainty about whether there were other planes, but I was not going to give a speech to the nation from a bunker in Omaha, Neb."

On the night of Sept.11, Bush declined to sleep in the bunker four floors underneath the White House, telling Winfrey that he took one look at the pullout bed the secret service wanted him to sleep on and headed straight to the presidential quarters.

But in the middle of the night, a false alarm about an attack on the White House forced the president and the first lady to retreat downstairs.

When he woke up the next morning, Bush said he was determined to "find out who the enemy was and what the enemy was thinking."

Asked whether he ever personally feared for his safety, Bush said, "No, never afraid," but added that he was "afraid for the country."

Bush visited ground zero in New York a few days after the attack, a visit he likened to "walking into hell."

"I got out there with the firefighters and the first responders and police and there was a palpable feeling of anger and revenge and raw emotion," said Bush. "I did the best I could do to comfort them and tell them how proud we were of them."

Questioned about whether he made a mistake in his quest to find Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction -- weapons that ended up not actually existing -- Bush insisted that while he feels bad about it, bad intelligence had steered him astray.

"Everyone felt that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction," said Bush. "And that ... after 9/11, that when you saw a threat you couldn't let it fully materialize."

"When we didn't find weapons, I felt terrible about it and sick about it, and I still do because a lot of the case to remove Saddam Hussein was based on these weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Oftentimes history [judges] you on the decisions you make and not on the decisions you don't make."

"Saddam in power today would mean the world would be less stable and more dangerous. The world is better with him gone," he said.

Former President Bush Discusses Life After the White House

Bush said the day he left the White House for good in January 2009, he was "comfortable" and "ready to go home.

"Well, I had just come from watching my successor be sworn in, and that in itself is an amazing moment, and it was a historic moment," he said. "I was reflective upon the peaceful transfer of power which makes America a special place."

"I had a great sense of gratitude that I was honored to serve our country for eight years," he said. "I was pretty relaxed, and unsure of what my life was going to be like post-presidency."

He declined to comment on President Obama's presidency, saying he didn't like criticism when he was in office.

Today, Bush and former first lady Laura Bush spend most of their time at their home in suburban Dallas, away from the limelight.

"I really do have zero desire [to go back into politics]," said Bush. "It's hard for people to believe that, but I had my moment."

"Eight years as president and six as governor of Texas, I've used politics as a chapter in my life and not my life."

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