NBC's Lauer Presses Bush on Legacy: Are You Trying to 'Force Critics to Take a Second Look?'

At the beginning of a live interview with former President George W. Bush and Laura Bush on Thursday's NBC Today, co-host Matt Lauer wondered about the motivation behind Bush's presidential library: "So many difficult moments, so many controversial decisions you made. Some of them cost you dearly in terms of popularity. Is one of the ideas here...to force your critics to take a second look?" [Listen to the audio or watch the video after the jump]

As the three of them toured the museum, Lauer highlighted an exhibit on the war on terror and noted how "it includes what was perhaps the most controversial decision of your presidency, invading Iraq." Lauer wondered: "Do you want people to look at some of the information you had, and do you think you'll convince the people who thought that was an unjust war, the wrong war at the wrong time, that perhaps you were right?"

Turning to the former first lady, Lauer fretted that a theater inside the library would provide a presentation slanted in favor of her husband: "In that theater, Mrs. Bush, visitors get to listen to advisers and they get to see breaking news. Is it a fair analysis? In other words, is it weighted in the direction of your president and – your husband – and what he eventually chose to do? Or is it right down the middle?"

At one point, President Bush explained: "The purpose here is not to defend or to argue or to debate." Lauer skeptically countered: "So you're not being defensive here?"

Later in the interview, Lauer took time to recall a contentious exchange he had with Bush as president: "I started to ask you questions about things like enhanced interrogation techniques and about secret CIA sites. And sir, you became animated with me and I would go as far to say you became agitated with me....I do want to ask you to describe the pressure you were feeling in the years post-9/11."

Bush acknowledged: "My duty is – was to protect the homeland. And I made some very controversial decisions." Lauer interjected: "You rethought any of them?" Bush replied: "No, because we were successful in protecting the homeland. People are going to argue about whether such and such yielded information and I'm telling you it did."


Here are relevant portions of the April 25 exchange:

7:35AM ET

MATT LAUER: Back here at the George W. Bush Presidential Center just outside Dallas, with the former president and the former first lady. And there were so many key moments in your presidency that are captured in this center. So many difficult moments, so many controversial decisions you made. Some of them cost you dearly in terms of popularity. Is one of the ideas here, President Bush, to force your critics to take a second look?

GEORGE W. BUSH: I never thought about my critics. I thought about just laying out for the American people the events that began the 21st century. And let them understand what it's like to make a decision, talk about the different events that took place, talk about some of the successes and some of the failures. And because ultimately history will judge whether critics are right or wrong. And – but this is a place to educate people.

LAUER: We're going to leave this area here where there are some hanging chads over there. We all remember that. We remember talking about the Supreme Court decision that resulted in your moving into the White House. And even though the country was divided and there was so much controversy, when you came to office, you had great plans in terms of a domestic agenda. And this section of your museum and library is dedicated to that.

(...)

LAUER: Over here, if we walk further, now we get into the, you know, we've had 9/11 and now we get into a wall here that says "Fighting the Global War on Terror." This, of course, includes the war in Afghanistan. And it includes what was perhaps the most controversial decision of your presidency, invading Iraq. And it became even more controversial after no stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction were found.

Do you want people – and there's one area here called the Decision Points Theater – do you want people to look at some of the information you had, and do you think you'll convince the people who thought that was an unjust war, the wrong war at the wrong time, that perhaps you were right?

GEORGE BUSH: I – look, the whole purpose is to lay out the facts as I saw them at the time. And people will make their own judgments. Some will agree, some will disagree. I will give you my judgment, removing Saddam Hussein was the right decision and the world is better off without him in power.

LAUER: In that theater, Mrs. Bush, visitors get to listen to advisers and they get to see breaking news. Is it a fair analysis? In other words, is it weighted in the direction of your president and – your husband – and what he eventually chose to do? Or is it right down the middle?

LAURA BUSH: I think it's right down the middle. It's to really give people the chance to see what it's like to hear from a lot of different advisers, to be prodded by the press. You know, what are you going to do? What's your decision? How are you going to make it?
 
GEORGE BUSH: Prodded is a polite word.

LAUER: You looked at me when he says that.

LAURA BUSH: But really to have some idea what it's like, especially monumental decisions, like the war on terror was. You know, that's just – that's a very, very big decision. And every president hopes they won't have to make that kind of decision.

GEORGE BUSH: But see the lesson here is every president is going to be confronted with decisions that they didn't expect to make.

LAUER: Right.

GEORGE BUSH: And so the purpose here is not to defend or to argue or to debate.
 
LAUER: So you're not being defensive here?

GEORGE BUSH: No, not at all. What we're being is factual. And you know, if somebody said to me, "Well, you're never going to disclose, of course, that weapons of mass destruction weren't found, are you?" I said, "Heck yeah, I mean, that's a fact." And we also disclose the fact that Saddam Hussein had the capacity to make weapons, the Duelfer Report reported that, you know, he wanted to make weapons when the world looked away. In other words, we just lay out the facts and people – and, I think, encouraging debate is important for – to understand history.

(...)

LAUER: One of the last times you and I stood in the real Oval Office was five years after the attacks of 9/11, it was the five-year anniversary. And I started to ask you questions about things like enhanced interrogation techniques and about secret CIA sites. And sir, you became animated with me and I would go as far to say you became agitated with me. And I'm not going to argue that issue with you again. But I do want to ask you to describe the pressure you were feeling in the years post-9/11.

GEORGE BUSH: My duty is – was to protect the homeland. And I made some very controversial decisions.

LAUER: You rethought any of them?

GEORGE BUSH: No. No, because we were successful in protecting the homeland. People are going to argue about whether such and such yielded information and I'm telling you it did. And that without information you can't protect the homeland.

And so, I don't remember being agitated. I might have been really angry. I don't remember being agitated.

LAUER: You poked in chest a couple of times, which hadn't happened to me before in the Oval Office.

GEORGE BUSH: Well, I was thinking about doing it again, but, you know.

(...)

Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen
Kyle Drennen is a News Analyst for MRC