All-Star Panel: Journalists who covered Bush White House speak out

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," April 25, 2013. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


FORMER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The political winds blow left and right, polls rise and fall, supporters come and go. But in the end, leaders are defined by the convictions they hold. And my deepest conviction, the guiding principle of the administration, is that the United States of America must strive to expand the reach of freedom.


BUSH: I believe that freedom is a gift from god and the hope of every human heart.


BRET BAIER, ANCHOR: President Bush today at the dedication ceremony. I covered the Pentagon at the first part of the Bush administration from 2001 on, and at the beginning of the second term I became chief White House correspondent traveling around with our next guests, a special panel of White House journalists, Bill Plante, senior White House correspondent for CBS News, Jennifer Loven is former chief White House correspondent for the Associated Press, and Ed Henry, of course, our chief White House correspondent for Fox News held a similar position at CNN. Thank you all for being here. I want to go around the horn, thoughts about the Bush presidency on this day as you look at the dedication ceremony and think back to covering and our time in the White House. Let's start with you, Bill.

BILL PLANTE, CBS NEWS: You know, this library reflects the guy that George W. Bush was. We had to figure out who he when we started to cover him. He was a much better politician than he appeared to be. He never liked to let on that he was an intelligent guy. He was very happy to let people think that he was kind of a dope. But of course we know better.

His management style was very direct, he was hands on. He knew exactly what was going on underneath him. And his style with the foreign leaders that he met was also very direct. One thing that comes out in the library is his willingness to submit his decisions, many of which were very controversial, to other people's judgments. And I am sure you've talked about that today, so I will not belabor it.

BAIER: Yeah. Jenn -- Jennifer?

JENNIFER LOVEN, GLOVER PARK GROUP: Yeah, look, I think Bill is exactly right. The library, the way that it's constructed, the way they designed it, kind of strikes me at the same time sort of the a brilliant move to take these decisions, these big -- sort of the four big decisions of Bush's presidency and submit them to the museum visitors, you know inquiry on their own.

It also strikes me as a little bit defensive and it shows how, it makes us --it reminds us of the defensiveness that existed during his time as president about many of those decisions as controversial as they were at the time, they remain controversial. Not enough time has passed for the sort of weight of history to decide what we think about the Iraq War, the way that he handled Katrina, the allegations of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, about the financial meltdown, about the handling of 9/11 and national security policies that followed.

So it is interesting, and like I said, I think both politically brilliant but also slightly over-defensive.

BAIER: Yeah, Ed, obviously in looking back, his poll numbers are going up. We talked about that and his relationship with the press during those times and those two terms was adversarial.

ED HENRY, FOX NEWS WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: No doubt about it, in part because of what Jennifer is talking about, because of tough decisions he had to make, about issues that he was not planning to grapple with like terror, like 9/11.

I was struck by in your interview with him, I was looking at the transcript and you were talking about the early days of his administration, when he was focused on No Child Left Behind and domestic issues. There was a national book festival, a state dinner for Mexico, and then all of a sudden 9/11 hits and everything changes. He said, it all changes, everything changes.

It struck me because if you fast forward to now with President Obama, all of the talk about the beginning of the second term was about domestic issues, immigration reform, what's he going to get done on gun control, and then Boston happens. It is unfair to directly compare it to 9/11. Two different scales obviously when you talk about terror attacks. But still an important moment in our history.

It will be interesting when you put that together with Syria and crossing the red line now, whether or not terror and national security in North Korea will play a bigger role in this second term than we expected just as in the Bush years when it turned out that the whole series of issues were different than we expected.

BAIER: Bill, you mentioned personal relationships, and President Bush was big on that. One clip I didn't play from the interview, take a listen to this.


BUSH: Blair, Asnar, Olmert, I going to leave people out, but a lot of the leaders with whom we served will be here. And so it makes it much easier to find common ground. Or it makes it easier to have a difference and then be able to find common ground if you're somebody's friend. And so I did. I spent a lot of time getting to know these leaders.


BAIER: We traveled around the world -- we traveled around the world with him, and you remember that iconic picture where he is kind of massaging Angela Merkel's shoulders at that G-20 meeting. And he had a joking relationship and that's where he did a lot of diplomacy.

PLANTE: Well, he did. His manner on the surface very casual and jokey.  And when he did talk to reporters he was much the same way. But there was always a method behind it. And the method was to get to know the person and get some business done. Of course, that photo you showed of him massaging Angela Merkel's shoulders was something that the Europeans thought was, oh my, never done.


BAIER: Jennifer, thoughts on that relationship building?

LOVEN: What was striking about covering George Bush, and covering him around the world was the degree to which he really put elbow grease into his relationships with other foreign leaders, just as he said, and the striking sort of the contrast with the amount of elbow grease that he really put into relationships in Washington. He was not known, much like our current president, frankly, who was engaging in this just now, he was not known for really reaching out to the Hill to a great degree and forming those relationships and spending a lot of time on it.

So I always found it really striking that he put so much currency in his relationships with Tony Blair, with Angela Merkel, with Putin, with other leaders around the globe who were important to what he was trying to do.

BAIER: Yeah, last word, Ed.

HENRY: I don't know if it was the same summit as the Merkel massage, but you'll remember the open mic incident with Tony Blair when President Bush sat down and they were chomping on these dinner rolls, and they were talking during a meal sort of impolitely about Syria, using cuss words and the like. And it sort of came out later as an embarrassing moment for the president, but on the other hand it sort of showed this behind the scenes diplomacy, throwing his arm around Tony Blair, talking just like two buddies. It worked for him on some issues, there were other issue where maybe it blew up in his face, but you're right, he did have that sort of direct, easy way.

And we had some fun out on the road together we should note, because I remember on that one summit in St. Petersburg, Russia, there was an all-night Karoke situation I think you were involved in, Bret.


BAIER: Oh man, I didn't think we were going to get there.  We ran out of time, but you brought it there. OK, Ed, Jennifer, and Bill, thank you very much, reflecting back at our time in the White House.

Next up we talk Syria with our regular panel in Washington.

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