WASHINGTON – President Bush said Monday the federal government's reaction to Hurricane Katrina was appalling, but was not the result of racial indifference to blacks hard-hit by the storm. "You can call me anything you want, but do not call me a racist," Bush said.
In an interview with "NBC Nightly News," Bush said he saw televised pictures showing the government's faltering response to Katrina, and that his first thought was that there was a breakdown of communications between all levels of government after the Aug. 29 hurricane.
"I heard, you know, a couple of people say ... `Bush didn't respond because of race_ because he's a racist,' or alleged that," Bush said. "That is absolutely wrong. And I — I reject that.'
"You can call me anything you want, but do not call me a racist. Secondly, this storm hit — all up and down (the Gulf). It hit New Orleans. It hit Mississippi, too."
Bush spoke with Brian Williams, anchor of "NBC Nightly News," in the Oval Office, aboard Air Force One en route to Pennsylvania and backstage at the World Affairs Council in Philadelphia, where Bush was making a speech on Iraq.
On U.S. troop levels, Bush said that despite an ongoing debate, he is satisfied that the United States initially sent enough military force to Iraq.
"I felt then and I felt now that we had the troop levels that we needed," Bush said. "History will make that determination."
Bush defended Vice President Dick Cheney's pre-war assertion that the United States would be welcomed in Iraq as liberators.
"I think we are welcomed," he said. "But it was not a peaceful welcome."
He said terrorists, supporters of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and others who reject democratic change were determined to prevent a new government from emerging. "But I — I think a lot of people are glad — I know a lot of people are glad that we're there," he said. "And they're glad we're helping them train their troops so they can take the fight."
Bush said he was confident that the White House could reach a compromise with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., on a proposal to ban the use of torture in gaining information from suspected terrorists.
McCain is insisting on his language that no person in U.S. custody should be subject to "cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment." The administration says the U.S. does not torture and follows international conventions on the treatment of prisoners. But the White House is wary of restrictions that might prevent interrogators from gaining information vital to the nation's security.
"I'm confident we can," Bush said. "On the other hand, we want to make sure we're in a position to interrogate without torture. These are people that still want to hurt us."