WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush said goodbye Thursday night to the nation he's led for eight years, thanking the American people "for the trust you have given me," assuring them that he'd "followed my conscience and done what I thought was right."
The 13-minute farewell address was a somber, gentle defense and reflection of his two-term presidency, which was defined largely by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11, but I never did," he told an audience of about 200 in the White House East Room, including 45 invited to honor what Bush called their "courageous" acts. The audience gave him standing ovations when he entered the room and when he finished.
The speech was the 43rd president's final scheduled public appearance until Tuesday's inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama. It was the last of several farewell — and legacy-building — events by Bush, including several weeks of media interviews and a Monday news conference.
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Bush is leaving office with one of the lowest approval ratings of any president in modern times. On Thursday, he tried to remind a national prime-time television audience of his convictions and his accomplishments.
"Our nation is equipped with new tools to monitor the terrorists' movements, freeze their finances and break up their plots," the president said. "And with strong allies at our side, we have taken the fight to the terrorists and those who support them."
He acknowledged that "you may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
Much of the public has turned against the war in Iraq, where more than 4,200 Americans have been killed in the conflict.
Many tactics that the Bush administration employed in waging its war on terror drew widespread criticism, such as establishing the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; setting up secret CIA prisons abroad; holding suspected terrorists for years without charges; wiretapping Americans without court warrants; and practicing "rendition" of terrorist suspects to authoritarian governments that would interrogate them more harshly than U.S. law allows.
Bush noted that Iraq "has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States."
His initiatives, he said, have kept American safe: "There can be little debate about the results. America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
The president also hailed his domestic record.
"For eight years," he said, "we have also strived to expand opportunity and hope here at home."
His No Child Left Behind program, passed in the first year of his presidency, was a landmark education law. Opponents said it was underfunded and poorly managed, but Bush maintained that, "across our country, students are rising to meet higher standards in public schools."
He cited other achievements: The Medicare prescription drug program "is bringing peace of mind to seniors and the disabled." Most people pay lower tax rates than when he took office. And, he claimed, "America's air, water and lands are measurably cleaner."
Bush has been reluctant to admit mistakes, and his farewell address was no time for mea culpas.
"Like all who have held this office before me," he said, "I have experienced setbacks. There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind."
Remember, Bush said, "America must maintain our moral clarity. I have often spoken to you about good and evil. This has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two there can be no compromise."
He singled out some in the crowd who illustrate what he called "the character of our people," like Arlene Howard of New York City, whose son George, a police officer, died in the 2001 attacks. Bush still carries his badge.
He cited Tony Recasner, principal of a new New Orleans charter school opened after Hurricane Katrina devastated the area in 2005, and Julio Medina, a former New York prison inmate who leads a faith-based program to help ex-offenders.
Bush also hailed Obama, who'll become the nation's first African-American president.
"Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose story reflects the enduring promise of our land," Bush said. "This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.
"And I join all Americans in offering best wishes to President-elect Obama, his wife, Michelle, and their two beautiful girls."
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