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Ari Fleischer on President Bush's Legacy

This is a rush transcript from "America's News HQ," January 12, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

BILL HEMMER, HOST: How will history judge our 43rd president? Ari Fleischer, the former White House press secretary is my guest tonight.

Good to see you. Ari. Good evening to you.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good evening.

HEMMER: You told some of our producers earlier today that you were surprised — surprised of the list of things he felt were mistakes. Explain that.

FLEISCHER: Well, it was a rather robust answer. The first time he got asked that question, he couldn't think of anything, and he's had a chance to think about it since then. So, it did surprise me.

He had a little bit of a long list. I was also surprised when he said fighting to change Social Security, to say that was a mistake, he would have rather focused on immigration reform. I thought they were both important. But that his conclusion. He said that was a mistake at that time.

Video: Watch Bill Hemmer's interview

HEMMER: All right. I'd queue it up for you. Let's go ahead and listen to this bit here. Roll this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT BUSH: I have often said that history will look back and determine that which could have been done better or, you know, mistakes I made. Clearly putting a "mission accomplished" on an aircraft carrier was a mistake. It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless, it conveyed a different message. Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HEMMER: Now, some of that he has alluded to in the past, Ari. So that really wasn't a lot about the rhetoric of bringing them home, dead or alive, whatever the words were, the strong words after September 11th.

FLEISCHER: Right.

HEMMER: Here is the impression I got today watching this with sitting and watching it with Megyn during "America's Newsroom" — is this guy really unaffected by the critics around him or does he just put up a good front?

FLEISCHER: Well, that's the bigger story of the news conference today and I'm glad you raised that, because I think, the core here is you're seeing a president who is about to sell off into the wind with confidence. And that's the private George Bush that I know so well. I saw it when I worked for him and I've seen it the many times I visited him since I left the White House. I'm, frankly, very glad the American people got to see that confident side of him today, because he is restful. He is pleased with the decisions he's made, and big decisions that got made on his watch.

I hope no other president has mementos of presidency as his — a recount, a recession, two recessions, two wars, an anthrax attack, a biblical hurricane. He's had issues that hardly anybody else has had to wrestle with, Abraham Lincoln and the civil war, that's different. But very few presidents have had the challenges he's had. He leaves with a lot of confidence, knowing, particularly on Iraq, he has made major decisions.

And Barack Obama should be thankful every day that he inherits a world without Saddam Hussein in it.

HEMMER: Well .

FLEISCHER: And he can thank George Bush for that.

HEMMER: You heard there the 43rd president had used the phrase "self pity," too .

FLEISCHER: Yes.

HEMMER: . about sitting back in office and saying, OK, well, the events of the day come at you, what do you do, sit around and cry in a corner. Those weren't his words but here were his words earlier. Watch this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I have never felt isolated and I don't think he will. One reason he won't feel isolated is because he's got a fabulous family and he cares a lot about his family. That's evident from my discussions with him. He is a 45-second commute away from a great wife and two little girls that love him dearly.

I believe the phrase "burdens of the office" is overstated. You know, it's kind of like, "Why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?" It's just pathetic, isn't, self-pity? And I don't believe that President-elect Obama will be full of self-pity.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HEMMER: Well, here is what I heard today. I heard the word "disappointment" and "mistakes," I never heard the word "regret." And I think, for supporters, they're like, "Yes, that's my guy. That's why I like him." And I think that's probably what drives his detractors nuts.

FLEISCHER: You just put the nail right on the head. That's exactly right. There are a lot of people who don't like what's happened. And they want George Bush to say that he is a mistake, his presidency is a mistake. And he shouldn't do that. Of course, he shouldn't do that.

But before I went to work for George Bush, I was Elizabeth Dole's communications director when she ran for president against George Bush. And Ron Fournier of the "Associated Press," the chief political correspondent, told me after his first interview with George Bush, he had never met a man more comfortable in his own skin than George Bush.

And that's a lesion that will serve Barack Obama well. The pressures are huge. The critics are many. If you're comfortable in your own skin, it is the best job you could ever have. And that's who George Bush is and that's what you saw today. That's why he still exudes confidence no matter what happened on his watch.

HEMMER: You know, Ari, he had a message for the Republican Party. He said, "Different points of view must be included."

FLEISCHER: Yes.

HEMMER: What does he mean by that?

FLEISCHER: Immigration reform. The president, coming from Texas, from a very ethnically-diverse state, particularly with Hispanic populations growing the way it is. He has a little fear inside that Republicans are becoming a party that is just monolithic, and immigration was the real lesson to him. He tried to find a center on immigration reform, and there was no center to be built in Washington, D.C.

Barack Obama is likely going to have the same problem. Now, there are some issues where the wings of the parties are so dominant, they don't let you find a center.

HEMMER: Ari, thank you for your time. It's nice to have you this evening, OK?

FLEISCHER: Thank you.

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