OTR Interviews

President Bush: 'The Greatest Honor Is to Be Commander-in-Chief'

This is a rush transcript from "On the Record ," January 14, 2009. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN, FOX NEWS HOST: Now, President Bush goes "On the Record" for the very last time as a sitting president.

We met President Bush at the commission of a brand new aircraft carrier with a very special name, the U.S.S. George H.W. Bush. We were lucky enough to actually go onto the carrier, and now you will, too.

In spite of all the serious issues this president has dealt with over the past eight years, during the dedication ceremony for the aircraft carrier named after his father, President Bush did take some time to reflect on a lighter moment. The president poked fun at himself.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: To prepare for this day I went back through some of my father's letters. I thought it was especially interesting to read one that he wrote in the late 1940's. He sent it to a friend.

And here is what he said. He said, "You should see Georgie now. Whenever I come home, he greets me and talks a blue streak, sentences disjointed, of course."

(LAUGHTER)

"He tries to say everything, and the results are often hilarious."

(LAUGHTER)

Some things do not change.

(LAUGHTER)

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: After the speech, President Bush told us how unbelievable it was to have such an impressive carrier named after his father, the 41st President of the United States.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Mr. President, nice to see you, sir.

BUSH: Greta, thank you.

VAN SUSTEREN: This is an exciting day for the United States Navy, for your family, and, of course, for President Bush 41.

BUSH: It is an unbelievable day to be here at the commissioning of the George H.W. Bush, a fabulous aircraft carrier. Thank you for being here with us.

VAN SUSTEREN: If you go down to the presidential library, you see that tape of him, that videotape of him when he was shot down and rescued by the Navy. It is almost a complete circle.

BUSH: It does. He was an 18-year-old kid, and flew off of a carrier. And here he is nearing his 85th birthday, and having the high honor of having this latest carrier named for him.

And really -- he has been looking forward to this day a lot. This is a big deal for him.

VAN SUSTEREN: Your mother got ribbed again.

BUSH: She is always perfect to needle. You know, she is always good for a laugh. I think it's because -- I know it's because people love her.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: The aircraft carrier which we commission today may be the Navy's newest ship, but she has already had an interesting past. Her catapult testing took place during an unseasonable cold snap. Her christening was thrown into chaos by a fierce nor'easter. And during construction, the shipyard was closed down because of Hurricane Isabel.

So in keeping with the ship's short history, I brought along an equally strong force of nature -- my mother.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

VAN SUSTEREN: What did you say to her afterwards?

BUSH: After the needle?

VAN SUSTEREN: Did she give you a little trouble for needling her?

BUSH: Believe me, she can punch back. I learned the needle from her.

VAN SUSTEREN: How to needle.

BUSH: Because she had been needling me. But she's awesome. Her health is great. You know, I unfortunately said in public the other day, they said, "how is your mom doing?" I said, she is a tough old bird. And she said, "Perhaps you ought think of another way to describe me, son." I said, "OK. A fine woman."

VAN SUSTEREN: A good choice, probably, especially since you'll be going home to Texas.

BUSH: I am going home, too.

VAN SUSTEREN: Have you seen a lot of her (inaudible)?

BUSH: You know, that's one of the things I am looking forward to in my retirement is to spend some quality time with mother and dad. I have not had - you know, I have seen them a fair amount, but I really haven't had a chance to travel with them or go and sit in our house with them in Houston. And so I really do want to spend some time with them here after I get out of office.

VAN SUSTEREN: When you were talking today, you were talking about what an honor it is to represent -- to be the commander-in-chief of the men and women who serve in uniform. It's special.

BUSH: I think it's the highlight of my presidency. I mean, I have done a lot of really interesting things, and there are a lot of people that have made our lives very comfortable. But the greatest honor is to be the commander-in-chief, and I will tell you why. I look out at the troops when I address them, and think everyone of those folks has volunteered, and many have re-enlisted, and all have understood the stakes.

And then there is the individual acts of courage and sacrifice. When you go to Walter Reed, and you see a kid who lost his leg, and he says, "Mr. President, I would do it again, and I want to get well, and I want to go back with my unit." Or you meet the families of the fallen, and people in their grief, they will tell you how proud they are of their child, for example, and how they wanted to be doing what they were doing.

And it is this culmination of all of these stories and all of these experiences that led me to tell the American people we are fortunate to have such a group of people. They are smart, they are capable, they are courageous, they are energetic. They are awesome.

VAN SUSTEREN: In terms of getting ready for today, did you talk to your father? Do you have these private moments where you say, "Wow, this is going to be named after you"? I mean, that' pretty amazing.

BUSH: Not really, you know. I mean, I got here late. They had the festivities last night.

I knew how much it meant to him, because he told me Wednesday -- it was -- the lunch with President-elect Obama was Wednesday, I think -- anyway, earlier this week -- and he told me right before the lunch, he said, "I cannot wait for Saturday."

And I just know how excited he was. I was here for when they broke the bottle across the bow. And I saw him then. And it's really -- it is so kind of the Congress to appropriate the moneys to build the ship and for the government to name the ship for him, because it has meant a lot to him.

I am absolutely convinced it helped extend his life. Not to say that he's ready to head out, but I know that the excitement of this moment added years to his life.

VAN SUSTEREN: You know, you say -- you talk about his age. He said to me the last time I talked to him, he is going to be jumping out of a plane. Is your mother going to let him go do this?

BUSH: Mother, I'm sure she will do what she did before and say if you jump, I am going to call you a nut.

But he -- I asked him. I said, "are you kidding me?" And he said, yes, I want to do it again. I said OK.

VAN SUSTEREN: He is an emotional guy, though. I mean, it's like -- it is very sweet that when you sit down and talk with him, he has so much pride for so much that's gone on in this country. He is an emotional guy.

BUSH: I think we are all emotional in the Bush family. I know he is, for sure, as am I.

One of the things that I worry about is coming to give a speech in which you praise your father, a man I love intensely, and I may not be able to make it through the speech. Which -- no problem today, because I stayed really focused on the words. But he is a guy, if you ask any of my brothers or my sister, we would say that his greatest gift was unconditional love to us. He is an awesome guy.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: Up next, more with President Bush. We spoke to the president moments before his final trip on Air Force One. The president had something special planned for that historic flight. He will tell you what that was next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

VAN SUSTEREN: We continue now with President Bush.

Now, we spoke to the president shortly after his historic meeting at the White House with all the living past presidents, and President-elect Obama. And President Bush felt the gravity of that rare event.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VAN SUSTEREN: You mentioned the lunch. How was that lunch?

BUSH: It was good. It was really interesting for me to see -- to be at the table with two men who are either 85 or soon to be 85, two aging baby boomers -- that would be me and President Clinton, both of us are 62 years old, and then the next generation, President-elect Barack Obama, who I think is 47 years old.

And it was interesting to listen to the questions he asked, and they were very good questions, and then the answers the other presidents gave. And it was a historic lunch, and I was glad to have hosted it.

VAN SUSTEREN: Any tips on retirement from the retired presidents?

BUSH: No. They all had different suggestions. And I have asked. I asked President Clinton. Of course, I watched my dad, and I am just going to have to get comfortable with the routine and focus on issues that matter to me. But I really -- the truth of the matter is, this is one of these presidencies that has never had a dull moment, or a moment in which we were not active. And so, when I retire here in a couple of days, I will be in Texas with my love, and I will you know, kind of prepare the post- presidency.

I know I will be giving some speeches, and I know I will be spending time on the SMU campus to build this policy institute. I would hope I will be able to entice people such as yourself to come down, to share your wisdom with students, the community, and the nation. And I am going to be writing a book.

VAN SUSTEREN: Well, I will tell you one thing. I do not know if you know this, but I was with your father and President Clinton on one of their projects.

BUSH: Right.

VAN SUSTEREN: They are gunning for you. They think you are going to come out and do the heavy lifting.

BUSH: Yeah, sure. (LAUGHTER)

VAN SUSTEREN: They're gunning for you.

BUSH: I - you know, I stay in touch with President Clinton quite a bit, and he said, "I am looking forward to working with you." And he said look, you know, take your time, and he understands what the decompression means.

One of the interesting things about the luncheon that I forgot to tell you is that the four of us had different experiences and, obviously, different circumstances with which to deal, but all four of us had the same experience of assuming the mantle of responsibility that comes with the presidency.

And you cannot appropriately describe what that feeling means. When you get sworn in as president, and you walk into the Oval Office as that first time, there is a different feeling. And all four of us know what that feeling means.

And I think President-elect Obama was, as we talked, he was getting a sense of the moment.

And the other thing I told him, and I truly believe this, is that I am fortunate to have a front row seat and watch him get sworn in. It will be an historic moment. And I am looking forward to it, and I am going to leave right after that and head on home.

VAN SUSTEREN: Is there a little, do you think a little maybe for you, maybe for President-elect Obama, that you get a little nervous on Inauguration Day? Is that the day when you sort of go up the hill to get ready to give that speech?

BUSH: Yeah, it will be for him. It won't be for me.

VAN SUSTEREN: How about eight years ago?

BUSH: Eight years ago, I was nervous.

People say, you know, can you think of a moment that stands out as a moment that's easy to remember and one that you really appreciated. And I think the second inaugural address is such a moment.

Unlike the first address, I was as much an observer as I was a speaker. In other words, I was able to take the whole event in.

The first one, I was full of anticipation, and I had the address pretty well in my mind, but it was a very emotional moment. And the second time, I was calmer, and more -- I was able to absorb the whole environment.

VAN SUSTEREN: Today, I understand, unless things change, will be your last trip on Air Force One.

BUSH: Well, it will be.

VAN SUSTEREN: As Air Force One.

BUSH: That's exactly right. It is. That is an interesting point. As a matter of fact, I am going to go to the hangar when we land and thank the -- all the maintenance crew, all the people who have been involved with keeping Air Force One flying, and express my deep appreciation and admiration for them.

You know, this is a series of lasts and good-byes. But you're right, it is the last flight on Air Force One. I will be on the airplane, but it's not Air Force One after noon on January the 20th. It will be just a nice, big airplane that will take us home.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

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