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President weighs in on regrets, gray hair, Iraq

Bush also pushes his Social Security plan and talks about varied topics in a discussion with reporters.

By BILL ADAIR, Times Washington Bureau Chief
Published January 14, 2005

WASHINGTON - Asked about his biggest regret and how he has changed after four years in the White House, President Bush let out a big sigh.

"Biggest regret ... in the first term. Hmmmm. Uhhhh, let's see," he said Thursday. "What's the other one? Have I changed? Better ask my wife that question."

He said his hair was grayer but that it was probably inherited. There is a lot of white hair in the Bush gene pool.

"I'll get back to you on the regret," he said. "I am not a regretful person. I am a look-forward, get-things-done type of person."

Bush's response during a roundtable with the St. Petersburg Times and other newspapers was reminiscent of his answer during a news conference last April when he had difficulty naming his biggest mistake. Critics said he appeared flummoxed by a simple and predictable question.

On Thursday, as he pondered his biggest regret, he drummed his fingers on the table in the Roosevelt Room.

"I'll let you know if I think of it."

Eventually he did, but first he covered a wide range of topics from baseball's new steroids policy ("It is good for the game of baseball") to whether it was appropriate to hold a lavish inauguration when people are suffering from the tsunami.

"I'm very mindful of the tsunami victims," Bush said. "That's why I asked my dad and President Clinton to go out and raise money. A lot of people who are coming here for the inauguration, I hope, will have given."

Bush said the $40-million for the inauguration had come from private donors.

"I think it's important to celebrate a peaceful transfer of power," he said.

The inauguration is "a great festival of democracy," he said. "People are going to come from all over the country who are celebrating democracy and celebrating my victory, and I am glad to celebrate with them."

Bush said he was unaware that conservative commentator Armstrong Williams had received $240,000 to promote Bush's No Child Left Behind program until the news media recently reported the payment.

"Armstrong Williams has been very clear about the fact that he made a mistake," Bush said. "There wasn't transparency and there should have been transparency. I appreciate him being forthcoming about the fact that he thought he was wrong to take the money and do what he did."

Was it appropriate for the government to pay Williams to promote the education program?

"I think there needs to be transparency and a clear line between people who profess to be a reporter and advocacy," Bush said. "Obviously there wasn't in this case. And I think we're going to have to look and make sure it doesn't happen again."

Bush said he hoped that Congress would pass his plan for private Social Security accounts by June 1. He would not reveal details about the plan but said he was open to many options to pay for the plan, including "indexing" benefits, which could reduce how much young workers receive when they eventually retire.

"We're open-minded to a lot of solutions if it will fix the system," he said.

Bush wore a blue business suit, a blue dress shirt and a gold striped tie. He was animated during the interview, gesturing and challenging reporters as they asked questions.

When a reporter began a question by saying Bush had cited weapons of mass destruction as his reason to remove Saddam Hussein from power but that the weapons "didn't exist," Bush kept interrupting with "Oooop!"

Bush said Hussein "had the capacity to make weapons, the desire to make weapons and he hated America."

After several interruptions, the reporter smiled and told the president, "You've really broken my mojo with this question."

At the conclusion of the 50-minute interview, a reporter returned to the "biggest regret" question. Had he thought of one?

"Yeah," he shot back, "that the tax cuts aren't permanent."

He paused and said he wanted to give a different answer.

"One of the things I've learned," Bush said, sounding wistful, "is that sometimes words have consequences that you don't intend. "Bring 'em on' (his comment in 2003 about insurgents in Iraq) was really a classic example. I was really trying to rally the troops and I fully understood what a great job they were doing. Those words had an unintended consequence. Some interpreted it to be defiance in the face of danger."

Bush said he also had second thoughts about his vow at the Pentagon to capture Osama bin Laden "dead or alive."

"I remember getting back to the White House and Laura said, "What'd you say that for?"'

"I said, "Well, it's just an expression that came out. I didn't rehearse it. It just was there when they asked for my opinion.'

"I don't know that it's a regret, but it's certainly a lesson that a president must be mindful of. I speak plainly sometimes, but you've got to be mindful of the consequences of the words."

Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at 202 463-0575 or adair@sptimes.com

[Last modified January 14, 2005, 04:35:12]


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