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Bush Apologizes: The Farewell Interview We Wish He’d Give

January 9, 2009

Matt Taibbi • Rolling Stone  header
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Despite a financial crisis for the ages, the catastrophic collapse of a Republican Party crippled by his political legacy, and the highest presidential disapproval rating in the history of American polling, outgoing commander in chief George W. Bush has not completely lost his sense of fun. When Rolling Stone caught up with him at the White House shortly after the holidays for what would turn out to be his final extended sit-down interview as president, the graying but still quite fit Texan had just finished his morning exercycle session in an eagle-emblazoned sweatsuit and was fiddling with a new toy.

“They call it a Wii, or a Mee, or something,” Bush tells me, smiling as he waves a wandlike plastic device in front of a 54-inch plasma TV in the Treaty Room, a large, brightly lit chamber on the second floor of the Executive Residence that traditionally functions as the president’s private study. The president is playing a friendly game of Major League Baseball — the Boston Red Sox against his cherished Texas Rangers — and a computer-rendered Daisuke Matsuzaka drills a hard slider right past him, down and in.

“Huh,” says the president. “Might have to choke up a little.”

Although now used as a game room, the Treaty Room still has a classic feel, with a century-old painting by Theobald Chartran depicting the signing of the peace treaty after the Spanish-American War, and a magnificent mahogany “treaty table” first used by Ulysses S. Grant. A bookshelf on the north wall displays standard-issue Americana such as Poor Richard’s Almanack, but it also contains former swimsuit model Kathy Ireland’s Powerful Inspirations: Eight Lessons That Will Change Your Life (“There’s a lot of good life stuff in there, a lot of stuff about patience,” the president says) and a well-worn copy of 101 Dumb Dog Deaths (“Makes me laugh every time, especially the one about cow-tipping”).

Matsuzaka delivers again, but the president looks fastball when the pitch is a change. “Damn it!” he shouts, bouncing the Wii wand off an antique globe in the corner. “Goddamn motherfucking shit!” After collecting himself, he takes a seat at his desk and leans back in his grand leather easy chair, stirring the ice cubes in a glass of Diet Coke with a finger.

So are we meeting up here because Michelle Obama is measuring the Oval Office windows for drapes?
[
Laughs] No. I just like it up here. Plus, people tend to get nervous in the Oval Office. Figured I’d make it a little easier on you by doing this here.

While I was waiting, one of your staffers told me a crazy story about a certain member of your Cabinet breaking wind in the Oval Office. Can you confirm that story?
Well, like I said, people get nervous down there. It’s — [
laughs] — I can’t believe someone told you about that.

But you’re leaving office in a couple of weeks. Come on. Throw us a bone. Just think, you finally get to talk about all of these things.
Look, I can’t. Besides, it wasn’t that big of a — OK, fine. It was Condi.
 

Condoleezza Rice farted in the Oval Office! When she was the national security adviser?
No, this was when she was State. Just after I appointed her. And it wasn’t no little whistler, either. She’s a little lady, but she let that baby rip. Nearly blew [White House chief of staff] Andy Card’s ears off.

Was this in the middle of something important?
It was January 2005. We were meeting about the first State of the Union speech of my second term. I’m telling everyone about how I wanted to make a major statement about ending tyranny around the world and spreading liberty and freedom, and the so-called pragmatists in the office, especially Cheney, are flinching, telling me I should confine myself to achievable goals. It’s a serious moment, and things were getting pretty heated. At one point I turn to Condi and I say, “So, Condi, what do you think?” And she’s like, “Mr. President, I think you should — “

And that’s when it happened. Ppppllllfft! It sounded like someone had started up a chain saw in there. We have this painting of the Rio Grande by an artist named Tom Lea in the Oval Office, and I swear to you that thing swung three inches sideways. She started looking around all innocent-like, like, “Gosh, who did that?” It was hilarious.

Doesn’t she know that cover-ups never work?
That’s what Cheney said: “Condi, that’s what got Nixon in trouble. You try to hide that shit, it looks 20 times worse.” I tell you, it was almost a year before she so much as smiled about that incident.

Let’s talk about August 6th, 2001. That’s the day you got a memo warning about plans for possible attacks by Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. What were you doing that day?
I’ll be honest with you. I was at the ranch, on vacation. I was watching the Hall of Fame game on TV. First NFL preseason game of the year, hate to miss it, you know?

I’m the same way. It doesn’t matter what teams are playing, I watch it.
Exactly. It’s a long off-season, and you start to miss the game. So I’m watching it — I remember it was Miami and St. Louis. First time I ever saw Marc Bulger. He was just a backup to Warner then. I think he threw a touchdown in the fourth quarter. I thought to myself, “This guy looks pretty solid in the pocket. He might have a future in this league.”

That’s good foresight right there.
Anyway, it was right around then that they brought me my PDB [Presidential Daily Briefing], and it said something about bin Laden. I mean, we get these warnings about foreign terrorists all the time. How was I supposed to know he was going to attack in the United States?

Well, the memo was titled “Bin Laden Determined to Attack in U.S.”
It was?

Yes, sir.
Well, nobody told me that.

But they wrote it to you.
But nobody told me that they wrote it to me.

Who’s “they”?
I don’t know. Whoever is in the room. Vice President Cheney. Don Rumsfeld. Rove. Sometimes there’s some other guys. It kind of rotates.

Do you decide who “they” is?
No, they usually decide who they is. Or at least one of they does. Usually Cheney.

Interesting. What did they tell you they wrote to you about why America needed to invade Iraq?
Sometime in the fall of 2001, pretty soon after 9/11, Rumsfeld and Cheney handed me a piece of paper. I asked them what was in it. Rumsfeld says, “Mr. President, we’ve just written you a memo explaining that we need to invade Iraq.” And I said, “OK. Why?” And Dick says to me, “Because of 9/11, Mr. President.” [
Silence]

Is that the whole story?
Yeah. Why?

[Read the full story in RS Issue 1070, on stands January 9, 2009.]

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