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Transcript: Bret Baier Interviews President Bush

BRET BAIER: Mr. President, thanks for being here.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yes, sir.

BRET BAIER: Today you were talking about keeping America safe. Do you believe that there hasn't been a terrorist attack on U.S. soil in more than seven years because of the policies your administration has implemented?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I believe that we've got a lot of brave men and women who are keeping the pressure on the enemy. I-- I know we've got a lot of people that are listening-- for signs of attack. And I-- I-- yeah, I believe the policies that we worked with Congress-- on to better protect America are paying off. Now, the problem is, is that there's still an enemy and they still wanna attack. And-- but we have been successful, thanks to a lot of people.

BRET BAIER: I mean, you've heard the critics of the administration who say the policies on interrogation techniques were-- amounted to torture. And the policies-- for surveillance amounted to illegal wiretapping. And that--

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yeah.

BRET BAIER: America's image was hurt around the world. And that made us less safe.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yeah.

BRET BAIER: How do you respond now, looking back to all of that?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:  Well-- I would respond and say that-- we always stay within the law, that we consulted with members of Congress, and that we have an obligation to put tools in place-- so the future Presidents can better protect the country. You know, I know there's a lot of urban myths about certain decisions I had made. But when the truth comes out and people will say, "Oh, I see what he did."

And-- but the idea, for example, of listening to a phone call from a known terrorist-- sure makes a lot of sense to me. Or the idea of using enhanced interrogation techniques on the man that ordered the September the 11th attacks-- makes a lot of sense to me and it makes a lot of sense to other Americans as well.

BRET BAIER: Do you worry at all that the incoming administration will undo some of the things that you say have kept America safe?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I think the incoming administration's gonna have to fully analyze the risks and the tools and-- come to their own conclusion. But one thing's for certain. I'm confident that President-elect Obama knows that-- that one of his most solemn duties is to protect the American people.

BRET BAIER: What's your take on President-elect Obama's national security team?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Solid. Solid team. I mean, for example, Secretary Gates, he's a-- I know him well. I trust him. I admire him. He's agreed to-- stay on at the President-elect Obama's request. And-- I'm impressed.

BRET BAIER:  Is that comforting to you?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, it's impressive to me-- that-- that the President-elect would-- see-- the talents of Bob Gates. I'm impressed by General Jones. I've known him for a long time and-- or the last eight years I've known him. And he's a very able patriot.

BRET BAIER: And we assume the commanders in Iraq, General Odierno (PH) and-- and CENTCOM, General Petraeus, will still be in place. So that continues--

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I--

BRET BAIER: --as well.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: --I know these men well. And I know they will serve the President-elect extremely well. And-- it's been my honor to serve with them. And-- I can't thank them enough for continuing to serve beyond my presidency.

BRET BAIER: Your aides confirmed today that your administration set you up a series of contingency plans-- for when it becomes President Obama, if there is an international crisis in the first days of his-- his administration. Did you spearhead that?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Actually, I-- in consultation with my chief of staff, decided this was the absolute right thing to do. This is the first time there's been a transfer of power during a war in a long time. And, therefore, it's incumbent that-- we make the transition as smooth as possible, that there be good, solid communications, that-- that there be exercises in place so that people are-- are more able to do their job. You see, I-- this may come as a shock to people, but I-- I-- I really want President-elect Obama to succeed. I-- I want him to be-- able to say that-- we-- we prevented further attacks.

BRET BAIER: What do you think is the biggest international challenge or potential threat that a-- a new Obama administration could face?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I think-- al-Qaeda's still very lethal and very dangerous. Yeah, obviously the Iranian issue is-- is a delicate issue. We've left it in pretty good shape because we've now got more than one nation that-- saying the same thing to Iran. Pakistan-- Afghanistan border's a difficult issue for the President. Fortunately, we've got two allies worrying about the same problem, which is extremism. These are-- these are issues that the President's gonna have to deal with.

BRET BAIER: Is there one that stands out more than another?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I think the thing that stands out most of anything is that there still is a radical group of people who are-- who-- who profess a certain ideology to kill to achieve their objectives.

BRET BAIER:  Despite our repeated asking, you have never really wanted to talk about polls (LAUGHTER) when you've made decisions throughout this presidency.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:  'Cause I never have used a poll to make a decision.

BRET BAIER: When you're leaving now, your approval rating is hovering around 30 percent or a little below. It's been below 40 percent for 27 straight months. And that matches Harry Truman's string of sub-40--

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yeah.

BRET BAIER: percent approval ratings. And you'll pass him this month unless there's a big surge that we don't know about.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I don't care.

BRET BAIER: That's my question.

BRET BAIER: --weigh in on the public opinion, you know, the feelings about public opinion throughout-- do you care?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Look, everybody likes to be popular. Everybody wants to be liked. But I just-- what-- what do you expect? We've got a major economic problem and I'm the President during the major economic problem. I mean, do people approve of the economy? No. I don't approve of the economy. So I-- you know, Bret, if you make decisions based upon polls, you'll-- you'll be a failure as President.

 And-- I've been a war-time President. I've dealt with two economic recessions now. I've had, hell, a lot of serious challenges. What matters to me is I didn't compromise my soul to be a popular guy.

BRET BAIER: I mean, many analysts believe that your legacy was going to be tied to Iraq and whether that could be a-- a legitimate democracy in the Middle East. And now there's a new legacy question after the financial meltdown.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yeah.

BRET BAIER:  Are you worried about being the Herbert Hoover of the 21st century?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: No, I-- I-- I will be known as somebody saw a problem and put the chips on the table to prevent the economy from collapsing. If you think about the decisions that I have made-- regards to the economy, it's-- it is-- I-- I'm a free market guy. But I'm not gonna let this economy crater in order to preserve the free market system. So we made a lot of very strong moves and-- it's been painful for a lot of people, particularly because-- you know, this-- the excesses of the past have caused a lot of folks to hurt when it comes to, like, their 401(k)'s or, you know, their jobs.

BRET BAIER: Would letting one of the big three automakers go to bankruptcy be a big mark on your legacy?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:  I'm looking at all options. Two principles by which I'm making this decision is-- you know, one, a-- a disorganized failure, disorganized bankruptcy or disorderly bankruptcy would cause-- could cause great harm to the economy-- beyond that which we're now witnessing. And that concerns me. And the other point is that I-- I'm not interested in-- in really putting good money after bad. So it's a-- it's an issue that I'm thinking through.

BRET BAIER: This week?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Well, I'm thinking through, you know, it needs to get done relatively soon.

BRET BAIER: No date, though, today?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: You're trying to make news. I'm not gonna let you make news. (LAUGHTER)

BRET BAIER: Well, speaking of that--

BRET BAIER: What do you make of this Blagojevich story?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: They're gonna have to sort it through in Illinois. Obviously anytime anybody allegedly betrays the public trust there's gotta be great concern because-- you know, democracy really is, you know, really rests on the trust of the people. It's a system of people and by people and for people. And, therefore, the public trust is important.

BRET BAIER:You ready for a quick lightning round?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Sure.

BRET BAIER: Quick questions, quick answers. What's the thing you're most looking forward to post-White House?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I know what I'm not looking forward to and that's my wife's cooking.

BRET BAIER:  (LAUGHTER) Okay. Will you--

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Most looking for? I can't-- it's hard to tell. I-- but, you know, I-- I am-- ask me after I've been home for a little bit.

BRET BAIER: Will you write a book?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:Yeah.

BRET BAIER: Do the speaking circuit?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Probably. Probably.

BRET BAIER: What are you reading now?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I just finished-- James McPherson's (PH) book on Abraham Lincoln and his generals, the new book he put out on the Civil War and it's really a good book.

BRET BAIER: What's one tip you would give the Obamas about living in the White House?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:  You're-- you're in for a fantastic experience. And-- you know, the-- the-- the staff there and the people there will really make your time comfortable.

BRET BAIER: That's great. On the bailout specifically-- (COUGHING) Secretary Paulson and-- your chief of staff told us that there was a meeting back late August, August-- 28th was the date they gave that where Secretary Paulson essentially laid it all on the line in the Oval Office. Do you remember those-- that early meeting with this kind of a holy-cow moment?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:  Actually, I think it was a little later, to speak off the record.

BRET BAIER: I guess the question is do you remember the earliest--

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I do remember a gee-whiz moment. So we'll start the answer.

BRET BAIER: Sure.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: There was a-- a meeting in the Roosevelt Room, which is right outside the Oval Office. And Chairman Bernanke and Secretary Paulson were there briefing me on the state of the economy. This is after we had made, you know, some serious decisions like on AIG and-- Freddie and Fannie. And they said the market's just so frozen that if we don't do something-- the-- the upcoming depression could be greater than the Great Depression. In other words, there is a chance that if we don't move, the economy could really go in the tank. And-- I vowed then and there that I wasn't gonna let that happen under my watch.

BRET BAIER: And what was your reaction?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: My reaction, it's a big problem. And-- I'm-- I-- I just said, "What are the options?"

BRET BAIER: Were you angry?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I mean, I got over my anger after this was watching these other entities go down after-- after, you know, writing financial products a lot of people didn't have any idea what they're doing. Listen, we're a over-leveraged economy. And we're deleveraging. And that's very painful. I'm just as sorry that-- the excesses on Wall Street have affected, you know, hard-working people out there. But I had to make a decision as to whether or not we're gonna prevent-- you know, (UNINTEL) big meltdown. And when you have your two top economic advisors tell you that you better move and you better move big otherwise you're gonna have a meltdown or you could conceivably have a meltdown and the odds are you will have a meltdown, I moved.

BRET BAIER: When the bill pa-- failed in the House--

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yeah.

BRET BAIER: The day the bill failed in the House, take us through that day, when you-- when you learned. First of all, Speaker Pelosi gets up and gives a speech-- that many people said was pretty partisan. And then-- the votes didn't go your way.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Right.

BRET BAIER: What was the reaction?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Just keep working it. Because-- and then the market, by the way, went down, like, I forgot how-- 9,000 point-- 900 points I think it was. It was a significant reaction. People said, wait a minute, these people can't come together. The President and a lot of other people saying we need to make sure that we don't let this economy fail.

 They've gone to the Congress to ask for $700 billion. Congress couldn't pass it and there was a huge reaction. And my-- my-- my reaction was let's keep going. You know, that's-- we gotta make sure we have the tools necessary to be able to deal with the-- with the-- with the financial crisis.
BRET BAIER: But you weren't pleased that day.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:  I mean, it's-- listen, there's been some days I haven't been pleased, I mean, for eight years. But I'm also a realistic fellow. And-- I didn't give up.

BRET BAIER: Do you think you should have bright House Republicans into that conversation earlier?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Oh, I don't know. Bret, I mean, I-- they-- they knew what the issues were. Listen, there's a lot of people that just don't agree with the-- with the strategy. And-- I understand that. I-- I-- from my perspective, though, we don't have any choice. I am not gonna let this economy fail. And-- therefore, we put a big stack of chips on the table. And if we have to put more on the table, we will until-- you know, the economy begins to improve, which means the housing market's gonna have to start to improve.

In other words, the basic structure of the economy has got to improve. There's-- there-- there's one positive thing. And that is that, you know, price of gasoline has gone down substantially since July, which is-- akin to a stimulus package. I mean, if you advertise-- the savings for the average family over a 12-month period-- with the price of gasoline the way it is today, it's about $2,000 per family. So that's a good stimulus. Now, having said that, I understand people are hurting. And I understand how tough it is.

BRET BAIER: You say you're a free market guy. Did you ever think during this process maybe we should let the market figure it out a little bit?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I did. And because they're-- everything was so intertwined and so global and-- these instruments had been traded back and forth and assets were-- you know, were very thin on some of the balance sheets of these financial institutions that letting some of them go down would have created a-- a serious financial turmoil. Listen, we have enough problems as it is. I mean, the market's literally froze. Now that they're becoming unfrozen. But I was deeply concerned about a financial meltdown.

BRET BAIER:  You have your ideas about how and when the government should step in and intervene with this amount of money based on advice from Secretary Paulson. Now Democrats are gonna take control of the White House and Congress.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Right.

BRET BAIER: Are you concerned that you've created a government intervention monster here?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I am-- one-- one-- one concern about making sure the economy does not collapse is that people forget the wonders of the free market system and free enterprise. And, yeah, I mean, I fully understand-- that some could use this as a precedent never to go back to (UNINTEL) they're making a huge mistake. I don't think the country would let them. I think one of the geniuses of our system is that the-- free enterprise system encourages innovation and productivity and gives people a chance to realize their dreams.

And over-taxation, over-regulation is not the ultimate answer to economic growth and vitality. And so-- look, I fully understand these are extraordinary times, however. And, therefore, we've taken extraordinary measures. And these are extraordinary measures. I mean-- the good news is, is that when the economy comes back, and it will, it will-- the government is gonna be reimbursed for a-- a lot of the-- money we've got in.

BRET BAIER: Couple more things quickly. You cam-- you campaigned as a compassionate conservative. There were people on the right at the time who said, well, worried aloud about it transforming into kind of a big liberal government-- kind of philosophy.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yeah.

BRET BAIER: Do you think that you have governed as a conservative?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH:  Absolutely. I have in question in my mind. And as a compassionate conservative. For example, education. It is-- conservative to say in return for money we'd like for you to measure to make sure that every child is learning to read-- read at that grade level. That also happens to be very compassionate.

The system oftentimes just shuffles people through. There's a process system. If you're 14, you're supposed to be here. If you're 15, you're supposed to be here as opposed to asking the fundamental question, "Can you read?" or can you write or can you add and subtract? And so we-- do No Child Left Behind and working with a lot of Democrats and Republicans brought accountability in the public schools. To me that's compassionate conservatism.

BRET BAIER: You think you're a Reagan conservative or a Barry Goldwater conservative?

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I'm a George W. Bush conservative.

BRET BAIER: All right. Mr. President, thanks for your time.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: Yes, sir.