Bush calls world leaders on final full day in office

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 19, 2009 

WASHINGTON — George W. Bush, whose presidency was punctuated by the cacophony of the disputed 2000 election, the shock and awe of two wars and the howling ill winds of Hurricane Katrina, spent a quiet final full day in the White House on Monday privately contacting world leaders to thank them for their hospitality.

As Washington prepared for President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration Tuesday, Bush stayed out of public view. He got to the Oval Office shortly after 7 a.m., had his daily intelligence briefing and made a round of phone calls until noon to world leaders, even some with whom he'd clashed.

Bush spoke with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, Danish President Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former Mexican President Vicente Fox.

"In the calls, the leaders thanked President Bush for his work and for their spirit of cooperation and friendship developed in the last eight years," National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe said. "President Bush expressed his gratitude for the kind hospitality all these leaders showed him and Mrs. Bush over the years and told them how much he enjoyed working with them during his two terms."

Bush also kept busy by commuting the sentences of two former U.S. Border Patrol agents who'd been convicted of shooting a Mexican drug dealer and by tapping Defense Secretary Robert Gates — the lone holdover from the Bush administration to Obama's — to be the "designated successor" during Tuesday's inaugural ceremonies.

Should something catastrophic happen to the new president and his Cabinet, Gates would assume the reins of government. Gates won't be present; he'll be at an undisclosed location.

Bush will perform his final presidential acts Tuesday morning when he meets Obama and wife Michelle at the White House North Portico and has coffee with them and Vice President-Elect Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, before witnessing their swearing-in outside the U.S. Capitol.

Afterward, former President Bush will speak at a departure ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base, then board the military 747 200B that serves as Air Force One — designated Special Air Mission 28000 on Tuesday because the plane becomes Air Force One only when the sitting president is aboard — to fly to Midland, Texas, for a homecoming event.

He'll spend his first night as former president at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.

White House officials say that Bush has been occasionally wistful during his final days, but they don't expect him to be frenetic in his closing hours, as was former President Bill Clinton.

Clinton, who half-jokingly spoke of repealing the 22nd Amendment — which limits presidents to two terms — pulled all-nighters in his final days to get in as much presidential time as possible and to work his list of pardons.

One of those was the controversial eleventh-hour pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, who fled to Switzerland while he was accused of evading more than $48 million in taxes and 51 counts of fraud.

Rich's ex-wife, Denise, had donated about $70,000 to first lady Hillary Clinton's 2000 Senate campaign and $450,000 to Bill Clinton's presidential library, leading to allegations that the Riches bought the pardon.

"I don't think he's going to be frantic into the night. That's not how he is. He's an early-to-bed kind of guy," White House Press Secretary Dana Perino said. "While wistful at times, I think he's also very excited about building his library, his institute and also having more time with Mrs. Bush. He's looking forward to making coffee for her Wednesday."

However, Perino said that Bush expected it to feel strange for a while.

"He said he doesn't know what it's really going to be like when he doesn't get his (intelligence) briefing in the morning, that he's done every day for eight years," she said. "It will be somebody else's responsibility, and I think with that comes a little bit of concern, but also a lot of relief."

Bush's international calls represented the latest move in a White House farewell tour in which Bush has been reflective — sometimes combatively so — on some of the key decisions he made as president.

Some historians and political observers think that Bush's self-analytic news conferences and television appearances of recent weeks were his effort to get in the last word on his legacy.

Historians already are assessing where Bush will rank among U.S. presidents, with some predicting that he'll be in the bottom tier with the likes of Warren G. Harding. Others say that Bush's presidency can't be measured accurately until there's a final outcome to the war in Iraq.

"He's trying to be historian in chief," said Gleaves Whitney, the director of the Hauenstein Center for Presidential Studies in Grand Rapids, Mich.

John Fortier, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative research center, said that Bush's long goodbye had been "amazingly straightforward" and that he expected the nation's 43rd president to "disappear from the scene" and not second-guess Obama.

"It's partly his nature, and partly, he's following his father's example," Fortier said. "To the elder Bush, the presidency was a matter of family duty and honor."

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