Entering the West Wing reception area for my last interview with President George W. Bush is a surreal experience. There is no one there, other than two Secret Service agents, a White House police officer and a receptionist. The place used to teem with people eager for a moment with the commander in chief, now people speak in hushed tones. A small TV set in the coatroom is tuned to Fox News. That will soon change. The news anchor is talking only about President-elect Obama. With two weeks to go in the Bush administration, it's all about the "O," not the "W."
Inside the Oval Office, I sit in the chair opposite the president's desk, the one reserved for visiting heads of state, the one, no doubt familiar to television viewers.
President Bush compares the fighting between Hamas and Israel in Gaza to what occurred in Iraq after the toppling of Saddam Hussein: "As this young democracy (Iraq) was taking hold, terrorists, suiciders, killers did what they thought was necessary to shake the will of the people ... to stop the advance of a free society. And yet, over time the Iraqi situation has gotten better and democracy is beginning to take hold."
The president remains optimistic that a Palestinian state can be created that will live in peace with Israel: "The definition of a state was being negotiated by (Israeli) Prime Minister (Ehud) Olmert and (Palestinian) President (Mahmoud) Abbas."
I ask him if the Palestinians in Gaza did not express their will by electing Hamas to lead them? He acknowledges they did, "in a relatively close election. But just remember, that vote wasn't on whether or not it was going to be war or peace. That vote was on who best can provide health and education. And I view that vote as a repudiation of the previous Fatah leadership, as well as a vote that said we are sick and tired of corruption, non-transparency, and we expect to be treated better."
The president is convinced that the way to defeat the "propaganda" coming from the extremists is to create free societies and "better efforts on our part to clarify what our position is." I still think this ignores a fundamental and doctrinal difference between the West and Islam. They believe we are prisoners of secularism and hedonism and that they are truly free within the bonds of Islam. But we move on.
Bush defends himself against a charge by a member of the Republican National Committee that he has behaved like a "socialist" because of his massive bailout spending. He says he still believes in less government spending, but when Henry Paulson, secretary of the U.S. Treasury, and Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve, tell him that if he doesn't act, the result will be worse than the Great Depression, "you can sit there and say to yourself, 'well, I'm going to stick to principle and hope for the best, or I'm going to take the actions necessary to prevent the worst.'" He says the bigger deficit about which Americans should worry is the one he tried, but failed, to fix: Social Security and Medicare.
The president disagrees with his former secretary of state, Colin Powell, who has said Republicans should abandon the social issues, if they want to win again. "I have ... been a strong ... defender of the culture of life. And I believe that's an important part of our party's future. I will be the first to concede that laws change only after hearts change." And yet he clearly believes that a GOP committed to conservative social values can help change hearts and, thus, laws.
President Bush suggests that Barack Obama will soon find that he must shift some of his positions from campaign rhetoric, particularly on the Bush doctrine of pre-emption: "I think the new administration will take a sober look at the world in which we live and come to the conclusions necessary to protect the homeland."
Do attacks by Democrats like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid bother him? Reid last Sunday called Bush, "the worst president in history."
In the closest he comes to rebuking his critics, Bush says, "I believe there's a way to conduct ourselves in public life without resorting to name-calling. And ... so I won't. I tend to ignore that." He chalks up criticism to his "doing things" and having "an active agenda."
President-elect Obama has not asked him for advice, but Bush is "impressed by his demeanor and impressed by his love of his family. And I told him I'd be available after the presidency if he cared to ask my opinions. ... He's going to have to choose whose voices are most credible, as he sorts through these different issues that he'll face."
President Bush says he hasn't decided whether he will deliver a farewell address. He will, however, write a book. He regrets not tackling immigration reform before Social Security reform.
Saying he has been "strengthened by prayer" -- his own and those of others -- the president added, "...some days are happy, some days are not so happy, every day is joyous."
With that I leave America's greatest house, as will President Bush soon, to await the judgment of history. I suspect that judgment may be better than many now think.