The Associated Press
WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday congratulated Democrats on their takeover of the House and strong gains in the Senate and announced he had selected a new defense secretary to oversee the increasingly violent conflict in Iraq.
Bush, reaching into the administration of his father, said that former CIA Director Robert Gates would replace Donald M. Rumsfeld as defense secretary.
To the end, Bush defended Rumsfeld’s troubled tenure, calling him “a patriot who served this country with honor and distinction.”
“I recognize that many Americans voted last night to register their displeasure with the lack of progress being made” in Iraq, the president said. “Yet I also believe most Americans — and leaders here in Washington from both political parties — understand we cannot accept defeat.”
He seemed stoic about the election, proclaiming “this isn’t my first rodeo.”
Gates led the CIA, under then-President George H.W. Bush, from November 1991 to January 1993.
“Bob Gates will bring a fresh perspective and great managerial experience,” Bush said.
The president said he had visited with Gates and talked about the job over the weekend on his ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Bush was asked whether, now that he is replacing Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, he still had full confidence in Dick Cheney and whether the vice president would serve out the rest of his term.
“Yes he does, yes he will,” Bush replied.
Like Rumsfeld, to many critics Cheney has been the face of the war in Iraq and one of its chief advocates.
Bush expressed both disappointment and surprise over the election results and said he had called Democratic leaders to personally congratulate them. “Actually, I thought we were going to do fine yesterday,” Bush said. “Shows what I know.”
He quipped that he had given House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi the name of a Republican interior decorator to help her pick out drapes for her new office — poking fun at the California Democrat’s pre-election remark about having her pick of Capitol suites.
As to the role played in Tuesday’s widespread GOP losses, Bush said, “I believe Iraq had a lot to do with the election, but I think there were other factors as well.” He suggested that a variety of congressional scandals may also have played a role.
He said he would seek to find “common ground” with Pelosi, but without either of them compromising their principles. She will become the first woman to be speaker of the House.
Bush was asked at his East Room news conference about Pelosi’s past derogatory comments describing him as a liar and dangerous.
“I know when campaigns end and governing begins,” he said. “If you hold grudges in this line of work, you never get anything done.”
Bush said “this is not the first campaign that people have expressed themselves in different kinds of ways.”
In Tuesday’s midterm elections, Democrats recaptured control of the House after 12 years of GOP rule and erased the Republican majority in the Senate. One race remained to be decided, Virginia, where Democrat James Webb held a slight lead of Republican Sen. George Allen.
If Democrats win that seat, they will have a 51-vote majority to a GOP 49-vote minority. If Allen wins, the next Senate will split 50-50.
Bush said he wanted to hear other views on Iraq, and was looking forward to recommendations by a commission headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton of Indiana.
Still, Bush added, “We’re not going to leave before the job is done.”
Almost six in 10 voters disapproved of the war in Iraq, exit polls showed.
Democrats who will control the House and may control the Senate had been near unanimous in their call for Rumsfeld to step aside.
Asked about whether the election would change his second-term priorities, Bush said, “Winning this war on terror is still the most important priority.”
Bush also got in a dig at his trusted top political adviser, Karl Rove, who is widely credited with Bush’s presidential victories in 2000 and 2004 and GOP gains in the 2002 midterms. As recently as last week, Rove flatly predicted Republican would retain both House and Senate.
“I obviously was working harder in the campaign than he was,” said Bush, who stumped hard for GOP candidates, especially troubled ones in traditionally Republican states.
Bush was asked whether one side effect of the Democratic wins would that it would be more likely to win approval of his immigration law overhaul proposal, which includes a guest worker provision and a path to citizenship, aspects opposed by most Republicans but supported by Democrats.
“I think we have a good chance. There’s an issue on which we can find some common ground with Democrats,” he said.