Declaring Barack Obama's election a "very hopeful moment for race relations," President Bush asserts his own administration did much to empower minorities, calling the No Child Left Behind education law "a piece of civil rights legislation" and saying his call to overhaul Social Security was aimed at giving blacks a greater stake in the nation's future.
In a wide-ranging Oval Office interview with The Washington Times, the president also laid out the challenges facing Mr. Obama. "The international economic turmoil ... will affect a lot of his early presidency," Mr. Bush said. He also warned of a looming war with drug cartels where "the front line of the fight will be Mexico" and dismissed as "urban myth" a commonly held belief that he squelched dissenting opinion among his advisers.
Mr. Bush, who leaves office in exactly 30 days, said he had worked hard throughout his eight years in office to lift minorities, in part by increasing homeownership and expanding opportunities for small businesses. But he said that the Republican Party will have to find new ways to persuade blacks and Hispanics that it is working in their best interests, citing his landmark bipartisan education bill to hold failing schools accountable as a prime example.
"No Child Left Behind is a piece of civil rights legislation. And it's going to be important for future Republican leaders to remind people that accountability in the public schools is leading toward closing an achievement gap, and that it was a Republican president who worked with both Democrats and Republicans to get it passed," the president said in a 40-minute interview Friday.
Mr. Bush said Mr. Obama's election is a "moment of healing for the country," but added that race relations "is an evolving issue." Still, the election of the first black president clearly moved the president, who leaned forward in his chair by a fireplace in the Oval Office as he recounted what he saw on the day his successor was chosen.
"I was touched when I saw on television people with tears streaming down their face saying, 'I never dreamt I would see this day.' And there was a lot of emotion and a lot of pride in America as an African-American rises to the presidency. And to me this is a very hopeful moment for race relations," he said.
Although Mr. Bush started working on passage of the education bill even before he took office in 2001 - inviting top lawmakers to Austin, Texas, to seek consensus and eventually winning the strong support of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy - Democrats, including the liberal icon from Massachusetts, now deride the bill as fatally flawed and advocate either its repeal or a major overhaul.
The president made the legislation an early centerpiece of his first-term agenda, calling the proclivity of inner-city schools to advance students who cannot read or write at grade level the "soft bigotry of low expectations." Since passage of the law, the gaps in reading and math scores between white and minority 9-year-olds fell to an all-time low, and 44 states improved on standardized test scores.
Mr. Bush said his ownership society was "aimed at a lot of people," especially the black community. And while Democrats opposed the creation of personal savings accounts with investments in the stock market - investments that would have been prone to the very financial meltdown that has occurred on Wall Street - Mr. Bush said overhauling Social Security would have benefited minorities.
"The philosophy behind my personal savings accounts and Social Security was aimed at encouraging and allowing individuals to take some of the money that normally would have gone into a system that is going broke and realize the benefits of compounding rate of interest so that they can see their assets accumulate," he said.
Washington Times - Bush claims civil rights gains