It was history — not the White House press corps or book reviewers — that former President George W. Bush had in mind when he sat down to write about his life, faith, political career and a presidency during which terrorists attacked the homeland, the U.S. waged two wars, and the country fell into a deep economic recession.
“I really didn’t spend time thinking about what the media would say about my book. I took the key issues, the key decisions I made, and tried to explain to the reader why I made them,” Bush told TODAY’s Matt Lauer during a live interview on Wednesday. “I was aware that some of the decisions I made were very controversial. And I knew putting them in the book would cause controversy … I am more concerned about what history thinks about the decisions I made.”
One of the key figures in Bush’s newly released memoir, “Decision Points,” told Lauer on Tuesday that he now regrets calling Bush a racist in the aftermath of the devastation Hurricane Katrina caused to New Orleans. Bush wrote that rapper Kanye West’s statement was one of the lowest points of his presidency.
“I would say of George Bush, in my moment of frustration, I didn’t have the grounds to call him a racist,” West said in a clip that Lauer showed to Bush. “But I believe that in a situation of high emotion like that, we as human beings don’t always choose the right words.”
Reacting to the clip, Bush said: “I appreciate that. It wasn’t just Kanye West who was talking like that during Katrina. I cite him as an example.”
The former president added: “I am not a hater. I don’t hate Kanye West. I was talking about an environment in which people were willing to say things that hurt. Nobody wants to be called a racist, if in your heart you believe in equality of race.”
Dressed in a navy blue suit and red tie, Bush gave a 14-minute live interview with Lauer that followed an hourlong taped discussion that aired on NBC on Monday night, in which he talked about his decision to stop drinking on his 40th birthday; Vice President Dick Cheney’s anger over Bush’s refusal to pardon Cheney’s former chief of staff; the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina; the rationale for invading Iraq, and many other topics.
Bush said Wednesday that he never expected the reaction that has followed his description of driving his mother to the hospital after a miscarriage: his recollection from his teens that Barbara Bush brought the fetus to the hospital in a jar she held in her lap.
“I had no intention of creating a national dialogue,” Bush told Lauer Wednesday. “My intention was to describe a relationship between a mom and her son, and an interesting anecdote that helps the reader understand why Mother and I are so close.”
Many critics have panned “Decision Points” as Bush’s attempt to put a positive spin on a difficult period in American history. A Washington Post reviewer wrote: “Like most presidential memoirs, W.’s is generic and unsurprising.”
But Bush defended his memoir, saying it is more of an explanation than an excuse. About the economic downturn, Bush wrote that his administration saw the housing crisis coming but “powerful forces on Capitol Hill” blocked its efforts to put limits on the freewheeling lending practices that caused it.
Noting that 2.6 million jobs were lost, the bank system nearly collapsed, the housing system did collapse and the country fell into the deepest recession since the Great Depression after the stock market crash of 1929, Lauer asked Bush, “How much of the blame for that should be laid at your feet and your policies?”
Bush acknowledged that his administration deserved some of the blame for its handling of the economic downturn, but said Congress could have slowed or prevented it. Bush said his economic advisers saw the approaching housing crisis, but Congress refused to restrict the government-backed Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae mortgage buyers.
“My conscience is clear when it came to recognizing an impending problem,” Bush said. “Anytime you are in power and there is a problem, you are going to get the blame; I realize that.”
While accepting some blame, however, Bush said lawmakers could have and should have done more to prevent the housing bubble. If Congress had, the Wall Street bailout might not have been necessary, he said.
“The hardest thing for me was not whether or not blame was assigned,” Bush said. “The hardest thing for me was to explain to hardworking America why taxpayer money was being used to prop up [Wall Street].”
Father of the Tea Party?
Turning to current politics, Lauer asked the former president: “Did you give birth to the Tea Party?”
“I don’t think I was that powerful,” Bush said, chuckling. “I think what gave birth to the Tea Party was severe frustration with the political system in general.
“I understand perception; the purpose of this book is to state reality,” he added. “I’m confident over time that when people take an objective look at the fiscal record of my administration, they’ll have a better understanding of why I said I was proud of our fiscal record.”
Asked about the controversy surrounding a proposal to build an Islamic community center and mosque just blocks from the site where the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers fell on Sept. 11, 2001, Bush said that he wasn’t about to get “roped into” that or any other debate.
Bush said that he is staying out of the issues of the day intentionally. “The problem with the arena today is that a few loud voices can dominate the discussion,” he said. “I don’t intend to be one of the voices in the discussion.”
Looking ahead, Bush said that he plans to remain active in causes and the charities he supports, including his own foundation. In terms of politics, he’s retired.
“I have no desire to debate. My debating days are over,” he said. “I knew when I laid out the book, people would chomp on different issues, sometimes spit it out, sometimes swallow it. I’m pleased with the response. All I ask is that people take a look. After I sell this book, I’m heading back underground.”