Remarks on "Meet the
February 8, 2004
Tim Russert: And we are in the Oval Office
this morning with the President of the United States. Mr.
President, welcome back to "Meet The Press."
President Bush: Thank you, sir.
Russert: On Friday, you announced a committee, commission
to look into intelligence failures regarding the Iraq war
and our entire intelligence community. You have been reluctant
to do that for some time. Why?
President Bush: Well, first let me kind of step back and
talk about intelligence in general, if I might. Intelligence
is a vital part of fighting and winning the war against
the terrorists. It is -- because the war against terrorists
is a war against individuals who hide in caves in remote
parts of the world, individuals who have these kind of
shadowy networks, individuals who deal with rogue nations.
So, we need a good intelligence system. We need really
So, the commission I set up is to obviously analyze what
went right or what went wrong with the Iraqi intelligence.
It was kind of lessons learned. But it's really set up
to make sure the intelligence services provide as good
a product as possible for future presidents as well. This
is just a part of analyzing where we are on the war against
There is a lot of investigations going on about the intelligence
service, particularly in the Congress, and that's good
as well. The Congress has got the capacity to look at the
intelligence gathering without giving away state secrets,
and I look forward to all the investigations and looks.
Again, I repeat to you, the capacity to have good intelligence
means that a president can make good calls about fighting
this war on terror.
Russert: Prime Minister Blair has set up a similar commission
in Great Britain.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: His is going to report back in July.
President Bush: Right.
Russert: Ours is not going to be until March of 2005,
five months after the presidential election.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: Shouldn't the American people have the benefit
of the commission before the election?
President Bush: Well, the reason why we gave it time is
because we didn't want it to be hurried. This is a strategic
look, kind of a big-picture look about the intelligence-gathering
capacities of the United States of America, whether it
be the capacity to gather intelligence in North Korea or
how we've used our intelligence to, for example, learn
more information about A.Q. Khan. And it's important that
this investigation take its time.
Now, look, we are in a political season. I fully understand
people -- He's trying to avoid responsibility. There is
going to be ample time for the American people to assess
whether or not I made a -- good calls, whether or not I
used good judgment, whether or not I made the right decision
in removing Saddam Hussein from power, and I look forward
to that debate, and I look forward to talking to the American
people about why I made the decisions I made.
The commission I set up, Tim, is one that will help future
presidents understand how best to fight the war on terror,
and it's an important part of the kind of lessons learned
in Iraq and lessons learned in Afghanistan prior to us
going in, lessons learned that we can apply to both Iran
and North Korea because we still have a dangerous world.
And that's very important for, I think, the people to understand
where I'm coming from to know that this is a dangerous
world. I wish it wasn't.
I'm a war president. I make decisions here in the Oval
Office in foreign-policy matters with war on my mind. Again,
I wish it wasn't true, but it is true. And the American
people need to know they got a president who sees the world
the way it is. And I see dangers that exist, and it's important
for us to deal with them.
Russert: Will you testify before the commission?
President Bush: This commission? You know, testify? I
mean, I'd be glad to visit with them. I'd be glad to share
with them knowledge. I'd be glad to make recommendations,
if they ask for some.
I'm interested in getting -- I'm interested in making
sure the intelligence gathering works well.
Listen, we got some fine -- let me -- let me, again, just
give you a sense of where I am on the intelligence systems
of America. First of all, I strongly believe the CIA is
ably led by George Tenet. He comes and briefs me on a regular
basis about what he and his analysts see in the world.
Russert: His job is not in jeopardy?
President Bush: No, not at all, not at all. We've got
people working hard in intelligence gathering around the
world to get as good an information as possible.
Intelligence requires, you know, all kinds of assets to
bring information to the President, and I want that intelligence
service to be strong, viable, competent, confident, and
provide good product to the President so I can make judgment
Russert: There's another commission right now looking
into September 11th.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: Will you testify before that commission?
President Bush: We have given extraordinary cooperation
with Chairmen Kean and Hamilton. As you know, we made an
agreement on what's called "Presidential Daily Briefs," so
they could see the information the CIA provided me that
is unique, by the way, to have provided what's called the
PDB, because --
Russert: Presidential Daily Brief?
President Bush: Right.
And see, the danger of allowing for information that I
get briefed on out in the public arena is that it could
mean that the product that I receive or future presidents
receive is somewhat guarded for fear of -- for fear of
it being revealed, and for fear of people saying, "Well,
you know, we're going to second-guess that which you told
I need good, honest information, but we have shared this
information with both those gentlemen, gentlemen I trust,
so they could get a better picture of what took place prior
to September the 11th.
And again, we want -- I want the truth to be known. I
want there to be a full analysis done so that we can better
prepare the homeland, for example, against what might occur.
And this is all in the context of war, and the more we
learn about, you know, what took place in the past, the
more we're going to be able to better prepare for future
Russert: Would you submit for questioning, though, to
the 9/11 Commission?
President Bush: Perhaps, perhaps.
Russert: Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican --
President Bush: Yes.
Russert: -- said he is absolutely convinced we will capture
Osama bin Laden before the election.
President Bush: Well, I appreciate his optimism. I have
no idea whether we will capture or bring him to justice,
may be the best way to put it. I know we are on the hunt,
and Osama bin Laden is a cold-blooded killer, and he represents
the nature of the enemy that we face.
These are -- these are people that will kill on a moment's
notice, and they'll kill innocent women and children. And
he's hiding, and we're trying to find him.
There's a -- I know there is a lot of focus on Iraq, and
there should be, but we've got thousands of troops, agents,
allies on the hunt, and we're doing a pretty good job of
dismantling al-Qaida -- better than a pretty good job,
a very good job. I keep saying in my speeches, two-thirds
of known al-Qaida leaders have been captured or killed,
and that's the truth.
Russert: Do we have a pretty good idea where Osama is?
President Bush: You know, I'm not going to comment on
Russert: Let me turn to Iraq. And this is the whole idea
of what you based your decision to go to war on.
President Bush: Sure, sure.
Russert: The night you took the country to war, March
17th, you said this: "Intelligence gathered by this
and other governments leaves no doubt that the Iraq regime
continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal
weapons ever devised."
President Bush: Right.
Russert: That apparently is not the case.
President Bush: Correct.
Russert: How do you respond to critics who say that you
brought the nation to war under false pretenses?
President Bush: Yes. First of all, I expected to find
the weapons. Sitting behind this desk making a very difficult
decision of war and peace, and I based my decision on the
best intelligence possible, intelligence that had been
gathered over the years, intelligence that not only our
analysts thought was valid but analysts from other countries
thought were valid.
And I made a decision based upon that intelligence in
the context of the war against terror. In other words,
we were attacked, and therefore every threat had to be
reanalyzed. Every threat had to be looked at. Every potential
harm to America had to be judged in the context of this
war on terror.
And I made the decision, obviously, to take our case to
the international community in the hopes that we could
do this -- achieve a disarmament of Saddam Hussein peacefully.
In other words, we looked at the intelligence. And we remembered
the fact that he had used weapons, which meant he had had
weapons. We knew the fact that he was paying for suicide
bombers. We knew the fact he was funding terrorist groups.
In other words, he was a dangerous man. And that was the
intelligence I was using prior to the run up to this war.
Now, let me -- which is -- this is a vital question --
Russert: Nothing more important.
President Bush: Vital question.
And so we -- I expected there to be stockpiles of weapons.
But David Kay has found the capacity to produce weapons.
Now, when David Kay goes in and says we haven't found stockpiles
yet, and there's theories as to where the weapons went.
They could have been destroyed during the war. Saddam and
his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into
Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported
to another country, and we'll find out. That's what the
Iraqi Survey Group -- let me -- let me finish here.
But David Kay did report to the American people that Saddam
had the capacity to make weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous
with weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with the ability
to make weapons. He was a dangerous man in the dangerous
part of the world.
And I made the decision to go to the United Nations.
By the way, quoting a lot of their data -- in other words,
this is unaccounted for stockpiles that you thought he
had because I don't think America can stand by and hope
for the best from a madman, and I believe it is essential
-- I believe it is essential -- that when we see a threat,
we deal with those threats before they become imminent.
It's too late if they become imminent. It's too late in
this new kind of war, and so that's why I made the decision
Russert: Mr. President, the Director of the CIA said that
his briefings had qualifiers and caveats, but when you
spoke to the country, you said "there is no doubt." When
Vice President Cheney spoke to the country, he said "there
is no doubt." Secretary Powell, "no doubt." Secretary
Rumsfeld, "no doubt, we know where the weapons are." You
said, quote, "The Iraqi regime is a threat of unique
urgency." "Saddam Hussein is a threat that we
must deal with as quickly as possible."
You gave the clear sense that this was an immediate threat
that must be dealt with.
President Bush: I think, if I might remind you that in
my language I called it a grave and gathering threat, but
I don't want to get into word contests. But what I do want
to share with you is my sentiment at the time. There was
no doubt in my mind that Saddam Hussein was a danger to
America. No doubt.
Russert: In what way?
President Bush: Well, because he had the capacity to have
a weapon, make a weapon. We thought he had weapons. The
international community thought he had weapons. But he
had the capacity to make a weapon and then let that weapon
fall into the hands of a shadowy terrorist network.
It's important for people to understand the context in
which I made a decision here in the Oval Office. I'm dealing
with a world in which we have gotten struck by terrorists
with airplanes, and we get intelligence saying that there
is, you know, we want to harm America. And the worst nightmare
scenario for any president is to realize that these kind
of terrorist networks had the capacity to arm up with some
of these deadly weapons, and then strike us.
And the President of the United States' most solemn responsibility
is to keep this country secure. And the man was a threat,
and we dealt with him, and we dealt with him because we
cannot hope for the best. We can't say, "Let's don't
deal with Saddam Hussein. Let's hope he changes his stripes,
or let's trust in the goodwill of Saddam Hussein. Let's
let us, kind of, try to contain him." Containment
doesn't work with a man who is a madman.
And remember, Tim, he had used weapons against his own
Russert: But can you launch a pre-emptive war without
iron-clad, absolute intelligence that he had weapons of
President Bush: Let me take a step back for a second and
-- there is no such thing necessarily in a dictatorial
regime of iron-clad absolutely solid evidence. The evidence
I had was the best possible evidence that he had a weapon.
Russert: But it may have been wrong.
President Bush: Well, but what wasn't wrong was the fact
that he had the ability to make a weapon. That wasn't right.
Russert: This is an important point because when you say
that he has biological and chemical weapons and unmanned
aerial vehicles --
President Bush: Which he had.
Russert: -- and they could come and attack the United
States, you're saying to the American people: we have to
deal now with a man who has these things.
President Bush: That's exactly what I said.
Russert: And if that's not the case, do you believe if
you had gone to the Congress and said he should be removed
because he's a threat to his people but I'm not sure he
has weapons of mass destruction, Congress would authorize
President Bush: I went to Congress with the same intelligence
-- Congress saw the same intelligence I had, and they looked
at exactly what I looked at, and they made an informed
judgment based upon the information that I had. The same
information, by the way, that my predecessor had. And all
of us, you know, made this judgment that Saddam Hussein
needed to be removed.
You mentioned "pre-emption." If I might, I went
to the United Nations and said, "Here is what we know,
you know, at this moment, and you need to act. After all,
you are the body that issued resolution after resolution
after resolution, and he ignored those resolutions."
So, in other words, when you say "pre-emption," it
almost sounds like, "Well, Mr. President, you decided
to move." What I decided to do was to go to the international
community and see if we could not disarm Saddam Hussein
peacefully through international pressure.
You remember U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 clearly
stated "show us your arms and destroy them, or your
programs and destroy them." And we said, "There
are serious consequences if you don't" and that was
a unanimous verdict. In other words, the worlds of the
U.N. Security Council said we're unanimous and you're a
danger. So, it wasn't just me and the United States. The
world thought he was dangerous and needed to be disarmed.
And, of course, he defied the world once again.
In my judgment, when the United States says there will
be serious consequences, and if there isn't serious consequences,
it creates adverse consequences. People look at us and
say, they don't mean what they say, they are not willing
to follow through.
And by the way, by clearly stating policy, whether it
be in Afghanistan or stating the policy that we expect
you, Mr. Saddam Hussein, to disarm, your choice to disarm,
but if you don't, there will be serious consequences in
following through, it has had positive effects in the world.
Libya, for example, there was an positive effect in Libya
where Moammar Khaddafy voluntarily disclosed his weapons
programs and agreed to dismantle -- dismantle them, and
the world is a better place as a result of that. And the
world is a safer and better place as a result of Saddam
Hussein not being in power.
Russert: There's a sense in the country that the intelligence
that was given was ambiguous, and that you took it and
molded it and shaped it -- your opponents have said "hyped" it
-- and rushed to war.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: And now, in the world, if you, in the future,
say we must go into North Korea or we must go into Iran
because they have nuclear capability, either this country
or the world will say, 'Excuse you, Mr. President, we want
it now in hard, cold facts.'
President Bush: Well, Tim, I and my team took the intelligence
that was available to us and we analyzed it, and it clearly
said Saddam Hussein was a threat to America.
Now, I know I'm getting repetitive, but I'm just trying
to make sure you understand the context in which I was
He had used weapons. He had manufactured weapons. He had
funded suicide bombers into Israel. He had terrorist connections.
In other words, all of those ingredients said to me: Threat.
The fundamental question is: Do you deal with the threat
once you see it? What -- in the war on terror, how do you
deal with threats? I dealt with the threat by taking the
case to the world and said, "Let's deal with this.
We must deal with it now."
I repeat to you what I strongly believe that inaction
in Iraq would have emboldened Saddam Hussein. He could
have developed a nuclear weapon over time -- I'm not saying
immediately, but over time -- which would then have put
us in what position? We would have been in a position of
In other words, you can't rely upon a madman, and he was
a madman. You can't rely upon him making rational decisions
when it comes to war and peace, and it's too late, in my
judgment, when a madman who has got terrorist connections
is able to act.
Russert: But there are lots of madmen in the world, Fidel
President Bush: True.
Russert: ... in Iran, in North Korea, in Burma, and yet
we don't go in and take down those governments.
President Bush: Correct, and I could -- that's a legitimate
question as to why we like felt we needed to use force
in Iraq and not in North Korea. And the reason why I felt
like we needed to use force in Iraq and not in North Korea,
because we had run the diplomatic string in Iraq. As a
matter of fact, failed diplomacy could embolden Saddam
Hussein in the face of this war we're in. In Iraq -- I
mean, in North Korea, excuse me, the diplomacy is just
beginning. We're making good progress in North Korea.
As I've said in my speeches, every situation requires
a different response and a different analysis, and so in
Iran there is no question they're in danger, but the international
community is now trying to convince Iran to get rid of
its nuclear weapons program. And on the Korean peninsula,
now the United States and China, along with South Korea
and Japan and Russia, are sending a clear message to Kim
Jung Il, if you are interested in a different relationship,
disclose and destroy your program in a transparent way.
In other words, the policy of this administration is to
be -- is to be clear and straightforward and to be realistic
about the different threats that we face.
Russert: On Iraq, the vice president said, "we would
be greeted as liberators."
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: It's now nearly a year, and we are in a very
difficult situation. Did we miscalculate how we would be
treated and received in Iraq?
President Bush: Well, I think we are welcomed in Iraq.
I'm not exactly sure, because the tone of your question
is, we're not. We are welcomed in Iraq.
Russert: Are you surprised by the level and intensity
President Bush: No, I'm not. And the reason I'm not surprised
is because there are people in that part of the world who
recognize what a free Iraq will mean in the war on terror.
In other words, there are people who desperately want to
stop the advance of freedom and democracy because freedom
and democracy will be a powerful long-term deterrent to
See, free societies are societies that don't develop weapons
of mass terror and don't blackmail the world.
If I could share some stories with you about some of the
people I have seen from Iraq, the leaders from Iraq, there
is no question in my mind that people that I have seen
at least are thrilled with the activities we've taken.
There is a nervousness about their future, however.
Russert: If the Iraqi people choose --
President Bush: Well, let me finish on the nervousness.
I don't want to leave it on that note.
There's nervousness because they're not exactly sure what
their form of government will look like, and there is --
you can understand why. In nine months' time, there's --
we're now saying, democracy must flourish. And as I recall
from my history, it took us quite a while here in the United
States, but nevertheless we are making progress.
And so, when you see the debate and the discussion about
freedom, those are welcoming signs as far as I'm concerned.
People are saying how best to develop this system so that
we're free and minority rights are protected.
Russert: If the Iraqis choose, however, an Islamic extremist
regime, would you accept that, and would that be better
for the United States than Saddam Hussein?
President Bush: They're not going to develop that. And
the reason I can say that is because I'm very aware of
this basic law they're writing. They're not going to develop
that because right here in the Oval Office I sat down with
Mr. Pachachi and Chalabi and al-Hakim, people from different
parts of the country that have made the firm commitment,
that they want a constitution eventually written that recognizes
minority rights and freedom of religion.
I remember speaking to Mr. al-Hakim here, who is a fellow
who has lost 63 family members during the Saddam reign.
His brother was one of the people that was assassinated
early on in this past year. I expected to see a very bitter
person. If 63 members of your family had been killed by
a group of people, you'd be a little bitter. He obviously
was concerned, but he -- I said, you know, "I'm a
Methodist, what are my chances of success in your country
and your vision?" And he said, "It's going to
be a free society where you can worship freely." This
is a Shiia fellow.
And my only point to you is these people are committed
to a pluralistic society. And it's not going to be easy.
The road to democracy is bumpy. It's bumpy particularly
because these are folks that have been terrorized, tortured,
brutalized by Saddam Hussein.
Russert: You do seem to have changed your mind from the
2000 campaign. In a debate, you said, "I don't think
our troops ought to be used for what's called 'nation-building.'"
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: We clearly are involved in nation-building.
President Bush: Right. And I also said -- let me put it
in context. I'm not suggesting you're pulling one of these
Washington tricks where you leave half the equation out.
But I did say also that our troops must be trained and
prepared to fight and win war and, therefore, make peace
more possible. And our troops were trained to fight and
win war, and we did, and a second phase of the war is now
going on. The first phase, of course, was the Tommy Franks
Russert: But this is nation-building.
President Bush: Well, it is. That's right, but we're also
fighting a war so that they can build a nation. And [crosstalk]
the war is against terrorists and disgruntled Baathists
who are saying we had it good in the past, and therefore
we don't want this new society to spring up because they
have no faith in democracy, and the terrorists who want
to stop the advance of freedom.
And if I might, people say to me, 'OK, you made a judgment
as to how to secure America for the short term with the
Taliban and with Saddam Hussein, and with staying on the
hunt for al-Qaida, but what about the long term?' Which
is a legitimate question. And the best way to secure America
for the long term is to promote freedom and a free society
and to encourage democracy.
And we're doing so in a part of the world where people
say it can't happen, but the long-term vision and the long-term
hope is -- and I believe it's going to happen -- is that
a free Iraq will help change the Middle East. You may have
heard me say we have a forward strategy of freedom in the
Middle East. It's because I believe so strongly that freedom
is etched in everybody's heart -- I believe that -- and
I believe this country must continue to lead.
Russert: Are you now willing to allow the United Nations
to play a central role in the reconstruction?
President Bush: In the recon -- in spending our money,
no. They don't want to spend our money, the money that
was appropriated by the United States Congress I think
you're talking about, but they will play a vital role in
helping the Iraqis determine the proper course to democracy.
Russert: In transferring power, the U.N. will play a central
President Bush: Yeah. I call it a vital role because there
is a lot of roles being played by different players, but
the U.N. will play -- and this role is a very important
role. It says to the Iraqi citizens who again are trying
to figure out the right balance as they head toward this
new democracy after years of -- after years of being enslaved
by a tyrant -- how best to do this, and I think it's very
helpful to have the stamp of the international community
be placed upon the political process.
In terms of reconstruction, of course we want the international
community to participate, and they are. There's a lot of
participation by the international community in restoring
this infrastructure of the country of Iraq that Saddam
Hussein had just totally -- I shouldn't say "totally," but
destroyed a lot of.
Russert: Before we take a break, now that we have determined
there are probably not these stockpiles of weapons that
we had thought, and the primary rationale for the war had
been to disarm Saddam Hussein, Paul Wolfowitz, the Deputy
Defense Secretary, said that you had settled on weapons
of mass destruction as an issue we could agree on, but
there were three. "One was the weapons of mass destruction,
the second is the support for terrorism, and third is Saddam's
criminal treatment of his Iraqi people."
He said the "third one by itself is a reason to help
Iraqis but it's not a reason to put American kids' lives
at risk, certainly not on the scale we did."
President Bush: Um-hmm.
Russert: Now looking back, in your mind, is it worth the
loss of 530 American lives and 3,000 injuries and woundings
simply to remove Saddam Hussein, even though there were
no weapons of mass destruction?
President Bush: Every life is precious. Every person that
is willing to sacrifice for this country deserves our praise,
Russert: Do you think --
President Bush: Let me finish.
President Bush: It's essential that I explain this properly
to the parents of those who lost their lives.
Saddam Hussein was dangerous, and I'm not gonna leave
him in power and trust a madman. He's a dangerous man.
He had the ability to make weapons at the very minimum.
For the parents of the soldiers who have fallen who are
listening, David Kay, the weapons inspector, came back
and said, "In many ways Iraq was more dangerous than
we thought." It's -- we're in a war against these
terrorists who will bring great harm to America, and I've
asked these young ones to sacrifice for that.
A free Iraq will change the world. It's historic times.
A free Iraq will make it easier for other children in our
own country to grow up in a safer world because in the
Middle East is where you find the hatred and violence that
enables the enemy to recruit its killers.
And, Tim, as you can tell, I've got a foreign policy that
is one that believes America has a responsibility in this
world to lead, a responsibility to lead in the war against
terror, a responsibility to speak clearly about the threats
that we all face, a responsibility to promote freedom,
to free people from the clutches of barbaric people such
as Saddam Hussein who tortured, mutilated -- there were
mass graves that we have found-- a responsibility to fight
AIDS, the pandemic of AIDS, and to feed the hungry. We
have a responsibility. To me that is history's call to
America. I accept the call and will continue to lead in
Russert: In light of not finding the weapons of mass destruction,
do you believe the war in Iraq is a war of choice or a
war of necessity?
President Bush: I think that's an interesting question.
Please elaborate on that a little bit. A war of choice
or a war of necessity? It's a war of necessity. We -- in
my judgment, we had no choice when we look at the intelligence
I looked at that says the man was a threat. And you know,
we'll find out about the weapons of mass destruction that
we all thought were there. That's part of the Iraqi Survey
Group and the group I put together to look at.
But again, I repeat to you, I don't want to sound like
a broken record, but David Kay, who is the man who led
the Iraqi Survey Group, who has now returned with an interim
report, clearly said that the place was a dangerous place.
When asked if President Bush had done -- had made the right
decision, he said yes. In other words, the evidence we
have uncovered thus far says we had no choice.
Russert: We're going to take a quick break.
President Bush: Thank you.
Russert: We're going to come back and talk to the President
a lot more about our world and our economy here at home
and the presidential election of 2004. We're in the Oval
Office with President George W. Bush.
Russert: And we are back in the Oval Office talking to
the President of the United States.
Mr. President, this campaign is fully engaged. The chairman
of the Democratic National Committee, Terence McAuliffe,
said this last week: "I look forward to that debate
when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals,
is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in
the Alabama National Guard. He didn't show up when he should
have showed up..."
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: How do you respond?
President Bush: Political season is here. I was -- I served
in the National Guard. I flew F-102 aircraft. I got an
honorable discharge. I've heard this -- I've heard this
ever since I started running for office. I -- I put in
my time, proudly so.
I would be careful to not denigrate the Guard. It's fine
to go after me, which I expect the other side will do.
I wouldn't denigrate service to the Guard, though, and
the reason I wouldn't, is because there are a lot of really
fine people who have served in the National Guard and who
are serving in the National Guard today in Iraq.
Russert: The Boston Globe and the Associated Press have
gone through some of the records and said there's no evidence
that you reported to duty in Alabama during the summer
and fall of 1972.
President Bush: Yeah, they're -- they're just wrong. There
may be no evidence, but I did report; otherwise, I wouldn't
have been honorably discharged. In other words, you don't
just say "I did something" without there being
verification. Military doesn't work that way. I got an
honorable discharge, and I did show up in Alabama.
Russert: You did -- were allowed to leave eight months
before your term expired. Was there a reason?
President Bush: Right. Well, I was going to Harvard Business
School and worked it out with the military.
Russert: When allegations were made about John McCain
or Wesley Clark on their military records, they opened
up their entire files. Would you agree to do that?
President Bush: Yeah. Listen, these files -- I mean, people
have been looking for these files for a long period of
time, trust me, and starting in the 1994 campaign for governor.
And I can assure you in the year 2000 people were looking
for those files as well. Probably you were. And -- absolutely.
I mean, I --
Russert: But you would allow pay stubs, tax records, anything
to show that you were serving during that period?
President Bush: Yeah. If we still have them, but I --
you know, the records are kept in Colorado, as I understand,
and they scoured the records.
And I'm just telling you, I did my duty, and it's politics,
you know, to kind of ascribe all kinds of motives to me.
But I have been through it before. I'm used to it. What
I don't like is when people say serving in the Guard is
-- is -- may not be a true service.
Russert: But you authorize the release of everything to
President Bush: Yes, absolutely.
We did so in 2000, by the way.
Russert: Were you favor of the war in Vietnam?
President Bush: I supported my government. I did. And
would have gone had my unit been called up, by the way.
Russert: But you didn't volunteer or enlist to go.
President Bush: No, I didn't. You're right. I served.
I flew fighters and enjoyed it, and provided a service
to our country. In those days we had what was called "air
defense command," and it was a part of the air defense
The thing about the Vietnam War that troubles me as I
look back was it was a political war. We had politicians
making military decisions, and it is lessons that any president
must learn, and that is to the set the goal and the objective
and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve
that objective. And those are essential lessons to be learned
from the Vietnam War.
Russert: Let me turn to the economy.
President Bush: Yes.
Russert: And this is one of my charts that I would like
to show you.
President Bush: I was hoping to see one of them.
Russert: The Bush-Cheney first three years, the unemployment
rate has gone up 33 percent, there has been a loss of 2.2
million jobs. We've gone from a $281 billion surplus to
a $521 billion deficit. The debt has gone from $5.7 trillion,
to $7 trillion -- up 23 percent.
Based on that record, why should the American people rehire
you as CEO?
President Bush: Sure, because I have been the President
during a time of tremendous stress on our economy and made
the decisions necessary to lead -- that would enhance recovery.
Let me review the bidding here. The stock market started
to decline in March of 2000. That was the first sign that
things were troubled. The recession started upon my arrival.
It could have been some say February, some say March, some
speculate maybe earlier it started, but nevertheless it
happened as we showed up here.
The attacks on our country affected our economy. Corporate
scandals affected the confidence of people and therefore
affected the economy. My decision on Iraq, this kind of
march to war, affected the economy, but we have been through
a lot. And what those numbers show is the fact we have
been through a lot.
But what the people must understand is that instead of
wondering what to do, I acted, and I acted by cutting the
taxes on individuals and small businesses, primarily. And
that, itself, has led to this recovery.
So, you show that the numbers kind of -- I'm not suggesting
the chart only shows the bad numbers, but how about the
fact that we are now increasing jobs or the fact that unemployment
is now down to 5.6 percent? There was a winter recession
and unemployment went up, and now it's heading in the right
The economic stimulus plan that I passed, or I asked the
Congress to pass, and I worked with Congress to pass, is
making a big difference.
Russert: But when you proposed your first tax cut in 2001,
you said this was going to generate 800,000 new jobs. Your
tax cut of 2003, create a million new jobs. That has not
President Bush: Well, it's happening. It's happening.
And there is good momentum when it comes to the creation
of new jobs.
Again, we have been through a lot. This economy has been
through a lot, which is why I'm so optimistic about the
future because I know what we have been through.
And I look forward to debate on the economy because I
think one of those things that's very important is that
the entrepreneurial spirit of this country be strong and
the small business sector be strong. And the policies I
have laid out enhance entrepreneurship, they encourage
small business creation, and I think this economy is coming
around just right, frankly.
Russert: The General Accounting Office, which are the
nation's auditors --
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: -- have done a study of our finances.
President Bush: Um-hmm.
Russert: And this is what your legacy will be to the next
generation. It says that our "current fiscal policy
is unsustainable." They did a computer simulation
that shows that balancing the budget in 2040 could require
either cutting total federal spending in half or doubling
President Bush: Um-hmm.
Russert: How -- why, as a fiscal conservative as you like
to call yourself, would you allow a $500 billion deficit
and this kind of deficit disaster?
President Bush: Sure. The budget I just proposed to the
Congress cuts the deficit in half in five years.
Now, I don't know what the assumptions are in the GAO
report, but I do know that if Congress is wise with the
people's money, we can cut the deficit in half. And at
that point in time, as a percentage of GDP, the deficit
will be relatively low.
I agree with the assessment that we've got some long-term
financial issues we must look at, and that's one reason
I asked Congress to deal with Medicare. I strongly felt
that if we didn't have an element of competition, that
if we weren't modern with the Medicare program, if we didn't
incorporate what's called "health savings accounts" to
encourage Americans to take more control over their healthcare
decisions, we would have even a worse financial picture
in the long run.
I believe Medicare is going to not only make the system
work better for seniors but is going to help the fiscal
situation of our long-term projection.
We got to deal with Social Security as well. As you know,
these entitlement programs need to be dealt with.
We're dealing with some entitlement programs right now
in the Congress. The highway bill. It's going to be an
interesting test of fiscal discipline on both sides of
the aisle. The Senate's is about 370, as I understand,
$370 billion; the House is at less than that but over $300
billion. And as you know, the budget I propose is about
Russert: But your base conservatives -- and listen to
Rush Limbaugh, the Heritage Foundation, Cato Institute,
they're all saying you are the biggest spender in American
President Bush: Well, they're wrong.
Russert: Mr. President --
President Bush: If you look at the appropriations bills
that were passed under my watch, in the last year of President
Clinton, discretionary spending was up 15 percent, and
ours have steadily declined.
And the other thing that I think it's important for people
who watch the expenditures side of the equation is to understand
we're at war, Tim, and any time you commit your troops
into harm's way, they must have the best equipment, the
best training, and the best possible pay. That's where
we owe it to their loved ones.
Russert: That's a very important point. Every president
since the Civil War who has gone to war has raised taxes,
not cut them.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: Raised to pay for it. Why not say, I will not
cut taxes any more until we have balanced the budget? If
our situation is so precious and delicate because of the
war, why do you keep cutting taxes and draining money from
President Bush: Well, because I believe that the best
way to stimulate economic growth is to let people keep
more of their own money. And I believe that if you raise
taxes as the economy is beginning to recover from really
tough times, you'll slow down economic growth. You'll make
See, I'm more worried about the fellow looking for the
job. That's what I'm worried about. I want people working.
I want people to find work. And so, when we stimulate the
economy, it's more likely that person is going to find
work. And the best way to stimulate the economy is not
to raise taxes but to hold the low taxes down.
Russert: How about no more tax cuts until the budget is
President Bush: That's a hypothetical question which I
can't answer to you because I don't know how strong the
economy is going to be.
I mean, the President must keep all options on the table,
but I do know that raising the child -- lowering the child
credit thereby raising taxes on working families does not
make sense when the economy is recovering, and that's exactly
what some of them are calling for up on Capitol Hill. They
want to raise taxes of the families with children, they
want to increase the marriage penalty. They want to get
rid of those taxes on small businesses that are encouraging
the stimulation of new job creation, and I'm not going
to have any of it.
Russert: We're going to take another quick break. We'll
be right back with more of our conversation with the President
in the Oval Office, right after this.
Russert: And we are back.
Mr. President, last time you were on this show you said
that you wanted to change the tone in the nation.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: This is Time magazine: "Love Him or Hate
Him: Why George Bush arouses such passion and what it means
for the country."
President Bush: Yes.
Russert: Tom Daschle, the Democratic Leader in the Senate,
said that you've changed the tone for the worse; that it's
more acrimonious, more confrontations, that you are the
most partisan political president he's ever worked with.
Our exit polls of primary voters, not just Democrats but
Independents in South Carolina and New Hampshire, more
than 70 percent of them said they are angry or dissatisfied
with you, and they point to this whole idea of being a
uniter as opposed to a divider.
Why do you think you are perceived as such a divider?
President Bush: Gosh, I don't know, because I'm working
hard to unite the country. As a matter of fact, it's the
hardest part of being the president. I was successful as
the governor of Texas for bringing people together for
the common good, and I must tell you it's tough here in
Washington, and frankly it's the biggest disappointment
that I've had so far of coming to Washington.
I'm not blaming anybody. It's just the environment here
is such that it is difficult to find common ground. I'll
give you a classic case: the Medicare bill. The Medicare
bill was a tough vote, but the Medicare bill is a bill
that a lot of people could have signed on to and had it
not been for kind of the sense of, well, 'Bush might win,
we might lose,' you know, or 'Bush might lose, we might
win' kind of attitude.
And... but I will continue to work hard to unite the country.
I don't speak ill of anybody in the process here. I think
if you went back and looked at my comments, you will see
I don't attack. I don't hold up people. I talk about what
I believe in, and I lead, and maybe perhaps I believe so
strongly in what we are doing around the world or doing
here at home.
Russert: But around the world, in Europe, favorable ratings
-- unfavorable ratings, 70 in Germany, 67 in France.
President Bush: But you know, Tim, that --
Russert: Why do people hold you in such low esteem?
President Bush: Heck, I don't know, Ronald Reagan was
unpopular in Europe when he was President, according to
Jose Maria Aznar. And I said, 'You know something? '
He said to me, he said, 'You're nearly as unpopular as
Ronald Reagan was.' I said, 'so, first of all, I'm keeping
pretty good company.'
I think that people -- when you do hard things, when you
ask hard things of people, it can create tensions. And
I -- heck, I don't know why people do it. I'll tell you,
though, I'm not going to change, see? I'm not trying to
accommodate -- I won't change my philosophy or my point
of view. I believe I owe it to the American people to say
what I'm going to do and do it, and to speak as clearly
as I can, try to articulate as best I can why I make decisions
I make, but I'm not going to change because of polls. That's
just not my nature.
Russert: Two polls out this weekend show you --
President Bush: See there, you're quoting polls.
Russert: -- you're trailing John Kerry in both U.S.A.
Today and Newsweek polls by seven and five points.
President Bush: Yeah.
Russert: This is what John Kerry had to say last year.
He said that his colleagues are appalled at the quote "President's
lack of knowledge. They've managed him the same way they've
managed Ronald Reagan. They send him out to the press for
one event a day. They put him in a brown jacket and jeans
and get him to move some hay or move a truck, and all of
a sudden he's the Marlboro Man. I know this guy. He was
two years behind me at Yale. I knew him, and he's still
the same guy."
Did you know him at Yale?
President Bush: No.
Russert: How do you respond to that?
President Bush: Politics. I mean, this is -- you know,
if you close your eyes and listen carefully to what you
just said, it sounds like the year 2000 all over again.
Russert: You were both in Skull and Bones, the secret
President Bush: It's so secret we can't talk about it.
Russert: What does that mean for America? The conspiracy
theorists are going to go wild.
President Bush: I'm sure they are. I don't know. I haven't
seen Web pages yet. (Laughs)
Russert: Number 322.
President Bush: First of all, he's not the nominee, and
-- but look, I look forward --
Russert: Are you prepared to lose?
President Bush: No, I'm not going to lose.
Russert: If you did, what would you do?
President Bush: Well, I don't plan on losing. I've got
a vision for what I want to do for the country. See, I
know exactly where I want to lead. I want to lead us --
I want to lead this world toward more peace and freedom.
I want to lead this great country to work with others to
change the world in positive ways, particularly as we fight
the war on terror, and we got changing times here in America,
Russert: Biggest issues in the upcoming campaign?
President Bush: Who can properly use American power in
a way to make the world a better place, and who understands
that the true strength of this country is the hearts and
souls of the American citizens, who understands times are
changing and how best to have policy reflect those times.
And I look forward to a good campaign. I know exactly
where I want to lead the country. I've shown the American
people I can lead. I've shown the American people I can
sit here in the Oval Office when times are tough and be
steady and make good decisions, and I look forward to articulating
what I want to do the next four years if I'm fortunate
enough to be their president.
Russert: Mr. President, we thank you for sharing your
views. I hope we can come back and talk about issues during
the course of the campaign.
President Bush: Thank you, Tim.
Russert: That's all for today. We'll be back next week.
If it's Sunday, it's "Meet The Press."
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