President Bush, delivering the final and most introspective press conference of his two terms in the White House, today acknowledged several mistakes and disappointments — yet voiced a defiant insistence that he had made the choices necessary to defend the nation from threats that still remain.

“This is the ultimate exit interview,” Bush said.

He spoke of the historic swearing-in of his successor, President-elect Barack Obama, next week as a signal of how far the nation has come in race relations, lavishing the Democrat with best wishes and predicting that he would find strength in the office from a loving family “a 45-second commute” from the Oval Office.

“I consider myself fortunate to have a front-row seat for what is going to be a historic moment,” said Bush, who will hand off the presidency Jan. 20.

Bush, who has endured years of criticism in the media, opened this final session in the West Wing of the White House with praise for the working press.

“We have been through a lot together,” the 43rd president said. “Through it all, I have respected you. Sometimes I didn’t like the stories you wrote.” Then, with a self-effacing joke about his occasional lapses in diction, Bush said: “Sometimes I felt you mis-underestimated me.”

Asked about his most strident critics, Bush said, “You know, most people I see when I move around the country, they’re not angry, they’re not hostile . . . they’re civil.” As for the others, he said, “I don’t know why they get angry. . . . Presidents can try to avoid hard decisions and therefore avoid controversy. . . . That’s just not my nature.

“In times of war, people get emotional,” Bush said. “I’ve never spent a lot of time listening to the loud voices.”

His own voice rising, Bush said it would be wrong “if I allowed the loud voices to prevent me from doing what is necessary to protect this country.”

Bush — who during interviews in his final months in office has confessed some regrets — offered a recap this morning.

“Clearly, putting ‘Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” he said of the banner draped across an aircraft carrier in the Pacific, where he landed in a fighter jet weeks after the invasion of Iraq to declare major military action completed.

“Obviously some of my rhetoric was a mistake,” said Bush, who previously has voiced regret over threatening to find Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” and challenging America’s enemies to “Bring it on.”

“I thought about Hurricane Katrina,” Bush said. “Could I have done something different?” The president was heavily criticized for an inadequate response to the disaster from the Federal Emergency Management Agency — and for waiting several days before visiting to survey the damage himself.

“People say the federal response was slow,” the president said. “Don’t tell me the federal response was slow when 30,000 people were pulled off the roofs by helicopters” after the flood.

He also said that focusing on overhauling the nation’s Social Security system right after his reelection was a mistake. “I should have argued for immigration reform,” he said.

The president called Abu Ghraib and the abuse of U.S.-held prisoners in Iraq “a huge disappointment. . . . Not having weapons of mass destruction [in Iraq] was a disappointment.”

Asked about the standing of the U.S. in the eyes of the world as a result of his actions, Bush said, “I strongly disagree that our moral standing has been [diminished].”

When Obama first walks into the Oval Office next week, Bush said, “There will be a moment where the responsibilities of the president will land squarely on his shoulders. . . . I wish him all the very best.”

Bush conceded that the thing he worried about his first day in office was his inaugural address, but he described Obama as “a better speechwriter than me.”

During his time in office, Bush said, “I have never felt isolated, and . . . Obama’s loving family will prevent the next president from feeling any isolation” in a job that Bush called “so exciting and so profound that the disappointments will be a minor irritant.”

While suggesting that he will step out of the limelight in retirement, Bush did allow that his “Type-A personality” may make that difficult. “I can’t imagine myself sitting back with a big hat” and rocking the time away, Bush said, “particularly since I quit drinking.”

Suggesting that he had never been able to escape the presidency — not when on vacation at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, and not when out mountain biking — Bush made this prediction about retirement:

“I’ll wake up in Crawford on Wednesday morning — I expect I’ll make Laura coffee.”

LA Times