A wistful and introspective President Bush devoted a valedictory news conference Monday to a robust defense of his "strong record," going further than he has gone before in conceding errors -- but making it clear that he has few major regrets about his handling of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina and the other major events of his eight years in office.
The tone of the news conference -- the "ultimate exit interview," as Bush jokingly called it -- was in keeping with a stream of recent speeches and interviews that appeared to be aimed at setting the record straight after years of relentless pounding from critics in the media, the Democratic Party and elsewhere. But looking back over the long arc of his turbulent presidency, Bush offered a bit more nuance and soul-searching than he usually does in such settings, pounding the lectern for emphasis at certain points and bantering with some of the reporters with whom he has sparred.
He conceded that some things "didn't go according to plan" in confessing a litany of mistakes, refused to talk about pardons, cautioned Republicans to be inclusive and wondered aloud what it would feel like to make coffee for his wife, Laura, at their ranch in Crawford, Texas, on the morning after Barack Obama takes his place.
He showed flashes of the trademark humor that helped elect him, as when he said -- without offering specifics -- that he intended to get busy quickly after leaving office.
"I just can't envision myself, you know, with a big straw hat and Hawaiian shirt, sitting on some beach," he said "particularly since I quit drinking."
You remember Sept. 11?
But the most striking moment of the 47-minute session, by far, was Bush's rousing defense of his record on fighting terrorism. With human rights advocates accusing his White House of condoning torture and demanding an inquiry into its counterterrorism tactics, the departing president used his platform to admonish reporters, and by extension, his successor and the nation, not to forget the lessons of Sept. 11, 2001, and the climate of fear in which his policies were forged.
"All these debates will matter not if there is another attack on the homeland," he said, his voice rising. "You remember what it was like right after September the 11th around here?" he demanded. "People were saying, 'How come they didn't see it? How come they didn't connect the dots?' Do you remember what the environment was like in Washington? I do."
He disputed the idea that the nation's "moral standing has been damaged" by harsh interrogation tactics, the creation of a detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the decision to go to war in Iraq without a U.N. mandate.
"It may be damaged amongst some of the elite," Bush replied, "but people still understand America stands for freedom, that America is a country that provides such great hope."
"You go to Africa, you ask Africans about America's generosity and compassion; go to India and ask about ... their view of America. Go to China and ask."
Bush would not address the possibility that he might issue so-called pre-emptive pardons to counterterrorism agents or administration officials who could face criminal prosecution for waterboarding or the firing of U.S. attorneys. "I won't be discussing pardons here," he said. It was the only question he refused to answer.
The last time Bush took questions from reporters was in Baghdad, where an Iraqi journalist threw a shoe at him.
Monday's news conference featured only questions, no shoes, and it will not be the final word from the president. The White House said Bush would deliver a farewell address -- a ritual dating to George Washington -- on Thursday night about the "greatest challenges facing the country and what it will take to meet them."
Today, Bush will hold his final Cabinet meeting, and he plans to award the Medal of Freedom to three of the foreign leaders he has been closest to -- former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Australian Prime Minister John Howard and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
A bit grayer, more wrinkled
It has been nearly eight years since Bush arrived in Washington vowing to be "a uniter, not a divider," with the idea that his presidency would focus on domestic issues.
He leaves behind two wars and an economy in turmoil, and the wear and tear of the office shows. At 62, he is grayer and a bit more wrinkled. Yet Bush said that he had "never felt isolated" during his time in office, and dismissed the idea of the presidency as a burden.
"Even in the darkest moments of Iraq," Bush said, he and his staff found that there were times "when we could be light-hearted and support each other."
He said he was not certain why he had become so divisive. "I don't know why they get angry," he replied to a question about those who disagreed with his policies so vehemently that it became personal.
Four years ago, Bush was asked if he had made any mistakes during his presidency, and struggled to come up with an answer, a moment that came to define him as unwilling to engage in critical self-analysis.
This time, Bush was ready for the question. It was clearly a mistake, he said, to display the Mission Accomplished banner during the 2003 shipboard speech in which he declared that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.
But there were limits to Bush's contrition. "I have thought long and hard about Katrina," Bush said. He said that although things could have been done better, he defended the response. "Thirty thousand people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. It's a pretty quick response."
Throughout the session, the president's fundamental point was that he had done the best he could under trying circumstances -- and that history will be the final judge. He said, "I don't think you can possibly get the full breadth of an administration until time has passed."
The Washington Post and New York Times contributed to this report.