Sunday, Dec. 19, 2004

Interview with the President

President George W. Bush sat down in the Oval Office with White House correspondents Matthew Cooper and John Dickerson and editor at large Nancy Gibbs to talk about Iraq, his second term and how he views his place in history.

TIME: You got a pretty big Christmas present a year ago today when they pulled Saddam Hussein out of that hole. So we thought we'd start with what you wanted for Christmas this year?
You know, I want there to be elections in Iraq on January the 30th, and for people to have a chance to express themselves. The Afghan elections were a really important part of a strategy that, on the one hand, defends ourselves with military action and, on the other hand, defends ourselves with the spread of freedom. And it is a great moment for the world to see a country that has gone from desperation and barbarism to one in which people actually showed up to vote to decide their presidency. Iraq will be enjoying the same opportunity — different circumstances, I readily concede. But I'm looking forward to those elections.

What kind of turnout are you looking for in the Iraqi elections? Fifty percent, seventy percent?
I would hope as many people as possible.

What does that feel like to have no more elections yourself?
Well, I haven't had much time to reflect on it. It turns out — as you know, I made the decision to change members of my Cabinet. I've had a lot going on, so I haven't been in a very reflective mood. I think over the Christmas holidays it'll all sink in.

I will tell you, though, that — first of all, it was a hard-fought campaign. Both of us worked really hard. I felt invigorated. There's something really refreshing about being endorsed by the people. It's hard to describe to you, unless you've actually been through it. But to stand up there and say — as you know, endlessly — exactly what I intend to do and over and over and over and over again, and then to have the people say, "We hear you and we're for you" is a — it's an energizing moment. So I feel energized about it all. In terms of not running again, you know, I've always felt politics would be just a chapter of my life, not my life. And so I don't have any remorse about saying, oh, gosh, no more campaigns. I say that now — maybe 10 years from now, when you find me somewhere, I'll be longing for a campaign. I doubt it. [Laughter.]

TIME: Sheriff ...
Yes, exactly. Some say I've already got it. [Laughter]

How was your re-election campaign different from those waged by Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan?
Mine was different because the circumstances were different. I mean, I had to make it very clear that the foreign policy of this administration would lead to peace. This was a tough four years for the American people; I know it has been. And I think it's very important for somebody running for office to say that, one, I will confront problems and not pass them on but also that by having confronted problems, that the next four years will be hopefully a more peaceful period of time for people.

Another thing that you did is that you told people what they might not want to hear. "You may not agree with me, but you know where I stand."
Well, I guess that's called stubborn. Wasn't that the word they used at some point in time, is stubborn? Look, I believe that if you believe something you've got to stand your ground, particularly in the face of criticism. I think the American people are looking at somebody running for office and they want to know what they believe, why they believe it, and do they really believe it. And it's particularly important in these kinds of unsettling times. Take, for example, my Christmas wish for the elections. I believe they ought to be on January the 30th, and I've said so, point-blank. I mean, everybody — it's clear to everybody, whether it be here in America or in Iraq, in the councils of government, what my position is. And it is essential that it be clear and understandable. Otherwise, if it were vague — "Well, we'll see what it looks like at the time" — you can bet people will find a reason not to do the hard work. And when it comes to a campaign, you know, you have to live with yourself when it's all said and done. Plus, I believe strongly when I say something, I generally believe it. Not generally believe it, I believe it. I always believe it. Scratch the generally.

A person who works closely with you said you don't mind being disliked when you make a tough call.
I think the natural instinct for most people in the political world is they want people to like them. On the other hand, I think sometimes I take kind of a delight in who the critics are. Sometimes I look through that teleprompter, when I'm giving the State of the Union address, and see reactions — I'm not going to characterize what the reactions are, but nevertheless, it causes me to kind of want to lean a little more forward into the prompter, if you know what I mean. Maybe it's the mother in me.

Sometimes you're defined by your critics, and on the other hand — my presidency is one that has drawn some fire, whether it be at home or around the world. I truly believe that the decisions I made will make the world a better place. Unfortunately, if you're doing big things, most of the time you're never going to be around to see them, whether it be cultural change or spreading democracy in parts of the world where people just don't believe it can happen. And I understand that. And I'm not — this, by the way, this happens to be an issue that crosses party lines. And I fully understand that. And I probably — if you aim for big change, you shouldn't expect to be rewarded by short-term history. I don't expect many short-term historians to write nice things about me, anyway. And I'm probably not going to see the effects of policy in the long-term. And in order to do some of the — make some of the decisions we have made in this administration, you have to believe. And I went to Bethesda, and I have to look at people in their eye who have been wounded by an IED, and say, "I believe what you're doing is going to make the world a better place." And if you're faking it, the people will read you like a book. And I believe it.

The Afghan election, interestingly enough — admittedly, there's more work to be done. I'm not suggesting you're looking at the final chapter of what has taken place in Afghanistan. But the elections were amazing. And if you go back and look at the history of the prognosis about Afghanistan — whether it be the decision in the first place, the quagmire, of whether or not the people can even vote — it's a remarkable experience. I believe that a free Afghanistan, a democratic Iraq, will affect the Middle East in a positive way. I believe we've got a shot for Middle Eastern peace.

One of the great ironies of life will be that a Palestinian state and Iraq became the catalyst for change in a part of the world that needs change. At least, that's our foreign policy, it needs to change. That's as opposed to managing calm, in the hopes that there won't be another September 11th, or in the hopes that the Salafist [radical Islamic ]movement will somehow wither on the vine, in the hopes that somehow these killers won't get a weapon of mass destruction, the hope that somehow time will change their hatred toward free, loving societies. I don't believe America can afford to sit back and hope that that happens, because I don't think it will. I think quite the contrary. I think trying to manage calm will only empower and embolden these movements beneath the surface.

And you know what? The election was about this, this issue of the use of American influence, in many ways. I can remember people trying to shift the debate. And I wanted the debate to be on a lot of issues, but I also wanted everybody to clearly understand exactly what my thinking was. And you go back and look at the debates and look at all the noise and all the rhetoric, you'll see that the speech in New Jersey or the speech in Colorado were aimed at making it very clear, the stakes in this election when it comes to foreign policy.

I wanted to ask you about the second term, since you've got so many big things planned and things you're trying to do. First, on Social Security, you had said when you addressed this question of double taxation of dividends back in the first term, that there was a good case for just getting rid of that double taxation; there was no reason to kind of quibble and do a half measure — really get rid of it. And I wondered, since you've laid out a clear goal about the benefits of these personal savings accounts whether you're tempted, as you draw up this plan, to make them bigger and basically have that be the dominant feature?
Look, I know it's very tempting, on your part, to try to get me to lay out the plan right now. But here's what's going to happen on this issue, in my judgment. First of all, I'm serious about addressing it. We've started the process. First step is to make sure that everybody understands we have a problem. In the campaign there was a little bit of doubt as to whether or not there was a significant problem. Remember, I said there was a problem and my opponent said there wasn't. And so we've got to make it clear, the nature of the problem, in order to be able to effect a solution.

Secondly, I will come out with a specific plan at some point in time. I think I have that obligation to do so, in order to get people to either rally around it or fine-tune it or go against it. It's got to fit into what is required to deal with an $11 trillion present value unfunded liability, coupled with some basic principles. And one of the principles you mentioned is personal retirement accounts, personal savings accounts, as a way to, one, encourage ownership, two, get a better rate of return, in order to enhance whatever benefits will be available for younger workers. Three — the key on this — however, is to make sure that an entire constituency doesn't get frightened, which would affect the legislative body, which is seniors who have already retired or are near retirement. Nothing will change, and it's going to be very important for me to articulate all that.

In terms of the judges, they will be people who strictly interpret the Constitution.

Everyone we've talked to for this article has talked about how much history you read. So we wondered if, knowing what you know now, you think either more highly or less highly of your predecessors?
Of my predecessors? Very interesting. More highly of them all.

All of them?
Well, I would say all of them. I haven't analyzed every one of them, but I feel more highly about them because they served right here in this office. I've got a much better appreciation of what they've been through, some more than others. I would say Lincoln, my appreciation for Lincoln has grown immeasurably. He is a President who was a visionary for the good of the country. I've got his painting right there. And he's there because he had this great vision about a United States of America in incredibly difficult times.

I have sat here and thought about what it would be like to be the President when brother was fighting brother and cousin killing cousin. And the deep anguish his writings reflected about seeing the country torn asunder. And, yet, he had a clarity of vision the whole time. He clearly saw what needed to happen about keeping this country united. There's a great painting in the Treaty Room, which is my office, where there's Lincoln with Porter, Grant and Sherman — I've got to make sure those three are the three — I think they're in a rainbow, sitting on a boat outside of Richmond, informing them that the peace will be one that keeps the union intact.

You know, again, Franklin Roosevelt, in dealing with an isolationist nation running up to a war, was a, I think, an interesting part of history. I'm reading a Max Frankel book now into how Kennedy handled the Cuban missile crisis. I'm not in a position to opine on it yet, because I'm only about a quarter of the way through.

All the people who serve here serve in different circumstances, but they have the same basic requirement, and that is the capacity to make decisions and know where you want to lead. And so, you know, I admire anybody who's been the President. I admire some more than others.

What about Bill Clinton?
At the portrait unveiling and the library I reflected upon his sense of enthusiasm about the job. This is a person who embraced the job and loved it. He took on issues, he took them on with enthusiasm and energy. He loved being the President and they say he filled the house upstairs. He really liked it. And that's an admirable trait.

You know, some people take on the presidency and it becomes kind of a heavy burden. And some take it on and they thrive. I tell people this rug here, which Laura designed, was my first lesson in delegation. A guy calls me over there at the Blair House. He said, "What kind of rug you want in the Oval Office?" I was preparing for this great moment when I was going to give my Inaugural Address. And I said, "Well, you know, we'll figure it out." And he said, "Well, you know, presidents design their own rugs." I said, "Well, I think I better delegate that one. — So I got Laura. And I said, "Laura, would you mind designing the rug?" She said, "What do you want it to say?" I said, "Say an optimistic person comes in here every day." I think she did a pretty good job. It's a fantastic rug.

Clinton had a sense of optimism about his experience here.

When you were at the Clinton library, did you think about your own library, your own legacy?
I'm beginning to think about the library, not the legacy. Remember, the legacy thing takes place probably long after you're gone. Really, you're standing in history. I'm not a big believer in the accuracy of short-term history. There ought to be a rule where no one writes history about your short-term until a generation of those who never voted for you or against you show up, you know what I'm saying?

So what were you thinking about your library?
Well, I'm thinking about the process. A couple of the people there gave me some advice: It's probably better to get started early rather than later on what you want the library to say and reflect about the administration. I would suspect at this point, if I had to think of themes, one would be the effect of freedom on the world. Maybe at home, how to achieve results-oriented government, or compassionate conservative agenda.

A location yet?
No. Look, one of the things you've got to understand is that it makes sense to give everybody an opportunity to weigh in.

Some people have said that in making your personnel changes for the second term, you're consolidating power.
I'm consolidating power? Why would I do — I've got all the power I need. What's that about?

Some people say the people you trust are your closest friends and they will give it to you with the bark off. But nobody in your administration will talk about any instances in which you've gotten it with the bark off. When have you, and have you listened to them?
Of course, I listen. I get all kinds of good advice. I remember when I named Condi, somebody said, "Well, you're being criticized because you put somebody in office who agrees with you." Yes. I mean, we've got some important things to do in the world: deal with North Korea, deal with Iran, Middle Eastern peace, make sure the Iraqi elections go forward. I mean, I think it makes sense to have somebody who understands how I think, understands the philosophy and agrees with it, in order to move an agenda forward.

Margaret Spellings is a classic example. She's a close friend, no question about it. We've toiled together on education issues for years. She worked her heart out here inside this White House. And when the opening came up for the Secretary of Education, I couldn't think of anybody better. One, I know her well. I know how she thinks, in terms of education. But I also love the fact that somebody who has been working so hard has now got to be Cabinet Secretary. I mean, I look forward to seeing Margaret Spellings sometime after we've all served together, and saying, "Madam Secretary, how are you?" You know what I'm saying? To me, that brings me great joy.

You've also said you don't like people to walk in and just say, "Nice tie, Mr. President."
Well, Margaret Spellings walks in and tells me exactly what she thinks.

Right. Give us a for instance.
I can't think of an incident right now, but it happens all the time. I'll say something provocative; part of my management style is to provoke thought and to get people thinking, is to lay something out there. And they'll say, "That's not a good idea, Mr. President," or "You know, I can't believe you said that."You know, I get input all the time from different sources — members of Congress who come up here are constantly — McCain is a guy who — we get along well, we agree a lot, and sometimes we don't agree. A lot of my friends are people that don't understand or agree with some of the decisions I've made and question why I made the decision I made. So, yes, quite a bit of input that way.

We know how you feel about short-term history, but you now have joined a very small group of people who actually will have been "Man of the Year" more than once — Winston Churchill and Mikhail Gorbachev and Deng Xiaoping.
First of all, I'm honored. I thank you for the honor. And you know what it says to me? It says I'm the President of a great country, the most influential country ever, and that I believe that this nation must lead. I tell people all the time, to whom much has been given much is required. And I believe we are where we are and we've got to use it for freedom and peace. And freedom and peace means more than just elections in a country; it means fighting disease and hunger. I think the honor reflects the fact that America is where she is in the world today, and I happen to be the President, and I'm grateful. And you know, it's a fantastic opportunity to seize this moment. You know, I see clearly the task ahead. We're dealing with the Salafist movement, and I believe we better deal with it now and — because, otherwise, it will strengthen in nature. I see this as an historic moment, a time to change the dynamics of the world in a positive way. And I look forward to convincing other nations that this is an historic moment. Many get it; some don't. But now that the elections are over, I'm going to reach out to other nations and explain to them as clearly as I can what I'm trying to explain to you: that together we can do some really positive things.