Bush on "Decision Points" Tour Calls Handling of Katrina a "Mistake"

"Decision Points" book by former President George W. Bush, graphic element

More than five years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast region, former President George W. Bush is saying that he and numerous other officials fell short in their response to the disaster.

In an interview on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" that aired Tuesday, Mr. Bush recounted his experience flying over the site of the 2005 hurricane to survey the scene.

"I shouldn't have flown over and looked," Mr. Bush told Winfrey. "I made a mistake. I should have landed. The problem is, when the president lands, resources are taken off the task at hand... I didn't realize that a picture of me looking out would look like I didn't give a darn."

The president's decision to fly over the site rather than stop and assess the situation on the ground was widely criticized as an indication of the federal government's insufficient response. Mr. Bush discussed the situation with Winfrey in a conversation about his new book "Decision Points," which touches on several issues from his administration.

Mr. Bush told Winfrey that his hands were tied to a certain degree, in part because responding to an emergency such as a hurricane is the responsibility of states.

"The federal government's role is to help the governor," he said. "In this case the storm...overwhelmed state government." Mr. Bush added: "I should've recognized the deficieny sooner and intervened sooner."

He said the severity of the situation was clear after flying over the site. "It looked like a nuclear bomb had hit the coast," he said.

While Mr. Bush acknowledged that "we could've done a much better job," he took issue with suggestions that his response to the disaster had anything to do with race. Various black political leaders, as well as celebrity Kanye West, said the president's response fell short because the victims of the hurricane were largely African American.

"You can disagree with my politics, but don't ever accuse me of being a racist," Mr. Bush said. "I can see how the perception would be, 'maybe Bush didn't care.' But to accuse me of being a racist is disgusting."

Mr. Bush touched on a range of issues in the interview, including his reaction after first learning about the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, where he kept reading along with children after being informed of the attacks: "I've had enough experience to know during a crisis that the leader must project calm," he said.

With respect to his decision to call for the Troubled Asset Relief Program -- i.e., the "bank bailout" -- Mr. Bush said, "I believed it help save the country, I really do."

In other interviews, Mr. Bush has discussed further topics broached in his book, including his decision not to pardon former Vice Presidential aide Scooter Libby in 2008. Mr. Bush said on NBC that decision did not sit well with former Vice President Dick Cheney.

In 2007, Libby was convicted in four felony charges related to the 2003 leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity, a leak thought to be a politically-motivated attack on her husband, Joseph Wilson. Libby was sentenced to thirty months in prison. He ultimately avoided jail time thanks to Mr. Bush, who commuted his sentence to $250,000 in fines and two years of probation.

"I chose to let the jury verdict stand after some serious deliberation, and the Vice President was angry," Mr. Bush said.

Now Wilson is disputing Mr. Bush's remarks.

"The President, by the way, is wrong in saying he let the jury's verdict stand. He did not," Wilson told MSNBC. "Scooter Libby did not serve a day in jail. And by commuting his sentence, he removed from [special prosecutor] Scott Fitzgerald any remaining pressure that Fitzgerald had on Libby."

More on President Bush's new memoir:

Bush Regrets Few Decisions from Presidency
Critics to Move Bush Memoir to "Crime" Section
Bush: Cheney Was Angry I Didn't Pardon Libby
Bush on Palin: I Am Not a Pundit
Bush Blindsided by Abu Ghraib, Financial Crisis
President Bush: Kanye West Comment "Disgusting"
Bush Considered Dropping Cheney from '04 Ticket



Stephanie Condon is a political reporter for CBSNews.com. You can read more of her posts here. Follow Hotsheet on Facebook and Twitter.

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