ABC News’ Michael Falcone reports:
In a wide-ranging television interview, former President George W. Bush defended some of the most controversial decisions of his presidency while offering up a few moments during his eight years in office he said he wished he could do over.
In particular, Bush criticized what he said was a “lack of crisp response” to Hurricane Katrina at “all levels of government,” saying that his initial decision to fly over New Orleans aboard Air Force One was a “huge mistake.”
“I should have touched down in Baton Rouge, met with the governor and walked out and said, ‘I hear you. We understand, and we’re going to help the state and help the local governments with as much resources as needed,’” Bush said in an interview that aired on NBC Monday night.
Bush told NBC News’ Matt Lauer that Katrina gave “critics an opportunity to undermine the presidency.”
And in one of the most emotional moments of the interview, the former president expressed deep disgust at singer Kanye West’s declaration in the days after the hurricane that "George Bush doesn't care about black people.”
“He called me a racist,” Bush said in the interview. “I didn’t appreciate it then, I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say ‘I don’t appreciate the way he’s handling his business.’ It’s another thing to say, ‘this man’s a racist.’ I resent it. It’s not true, and it’s one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.”
The interview was timed to coincide with the release of Bush’s new book, “Decision Points,” part autobiography, part political memoir. The book covers a series of the most critical decisions Bush made during his two terms in the White House, including a lengthy discussion of his response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Bush stood by his decision to waterboard terrorist suspects, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. When pressed by Lauer to say why it was acceptable to use the harsh interrogation technique, Bush replied: “Because the lawyers said it was legal.”
“My job was to protect America and I did,” Bush said, adding: “It was the right thing to do.”
The former president also said he did the right thing by allowing then Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to remain in his position even after evidence of detainee mistreatment at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq surfaced and after Rumsfeld twice offered his resignation.
Bush also said he did not regret the decision to keep Dick Cheney as his vice president for a second term even though Cheney suggested that the president might want to replace him.
“I’m a deliberate person, but I came down to this conclusion,” Bush said of Cheney, “He was a solid adviser, he never went around my back, when I made a decision he supported it, and I like him a lot.”
Bush also revealed some details of his personal life, including anecdotes about his struggle with alcohol. He said he “never had a sip of alcohol in the White House.”
He said that his anti-abortion rights views were shaped by a poignant moment when his mother, Barbara Bush, showed him her own miscarried fetus. It is a scene that Bush said he included in his book only after getting her permission.
"There's no question that affected me,” Bush said in Monday’s interview, adding that it instilled “a philosophy that we should respect life.”
He also elaborated on his relationship with his father, former President George H.W. Bush, which he said outsiders view as “complex.” Bush said people might be “surprised to learn that this relationship is based upon love.”
He added that his father’s political career was “the final motivating factor” in his own decision to run for president. Bush said he had always wondered whether he had it in him to “get into the arena like he did.”
Watch a clip of the interview: