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President gives behind-the-scenes look at office in troubling times | (KRT) WASHINGTON — Standing at the center of the most celebrated office in America, President George W. Bush is suddenly transformed into a tour guide, showing a group of journalists the hallowed surroundings where these days he makes life-and-death decisions.

Behind him is the desk where the Kennedy children played almost a half-century ago. Abraham Lincoln stares resolutely from a portrait on the wall. Elsewhere in the Oval Office are mementos of Bush's native Texas - a rug with a Lone Star, a painting of rustic West Texas, a cowboy sculpture.

Not visible - but still nearly as palpable - are the monumental burdens that go with this 2-century-old office. Since he moved in nearly three years ago, the former Texas governor has grappled with a troubled economy, two wars and something that seemed incomprehensible before Sept. 11, 2001 - a terrorist assault on the United States.

In an interview Tuesday with 12 news organizations, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bush reflected on his administration's accomplishments and the challenges that lie ahead, offering insights into his personality and style of leadership. He showed flashes of self-deprecating humor but acknowledged the emotional weight of sending young men and women into combat.

"I'm sad when we lose life," he said. "I understand that it was my decision that sent those brave soldiers there in the first place." During a recent meeting with the families of slain soldiers, he recalled, "I hugged, I cried, I empathized."

He said he also still grieves for the nearly 3,000 who were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, adding, "The decisions and actions we're taking will make America safer from these types of attacks again."

Bush said he draws heavily on his religious faith. "Obviously, I pray about the decisions I make," he said. "I find my faith sustains me in this job."

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Although continuing assaults on American forces have raised questions about the U.S. presence in Iraq, Bush called the development of a free Iraq essential to the U.S.-led war on terror. Occupying forces have killed or captured most of the leaders of Saddam's fallen regime and are "slowly but surely" working their way to the former dictator, Bush said.

"The definition of victory is for there to be a free and peaceful Iraq and, yes, we'd like to capture or kill him as well," he said of Saddam. "And we will."

The former Texas governor appeared confident and upbeat during the 45-minute interview in the Roosevelt Room, often joking with reporters.

After responding to a question from a Florida reporter, Bush asked, "How's brother?" referring to his brother Jeb Bush, the Florida governor.

The president also showed a bit of frustration with the hapless Texas Rangers, which he co-owned before entering politics in the mid-1990s. When a Seattle reporter asked an ice-breaking question about the Seattle Mariners, Bush quipped: "They're a lot better than the Rangers."

Bush led the journalists on a tour of the Oval Office which the president and first lady Laura Bush have decorated with a distinctive Texas flair.

"It reminds me where I was and where I'm from and where I'm going - hopefully later rather than sooner," said Bush, a former oilman who grew up in Midland. "It's really important for a president to know where he comes from - to understand basic values, how you were raised and what you believe in."

Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, the 41st president, occupied the office from 1989 to 1993. The younger Bush said that since he took office he has assembled a strong, disciplined staff that has ready access to the president and can "say what they think."

The group interview, which included news organizations from several states heavily hit by job losses, came at a time when Bush's once-soaring polls are nudging downward amid public concern over his policies on Iraq and the economy.

Although the economy has made progress on some fronts, nearly 3 million jobs have disappeared since Bush took office, a statistic unfailingly mentioned by the nine Democratic contenders seeking to dislodge him from office.

Bush said he is confident that his administration is pursuing the right course toward invigorating the sluggish economy. He vowed to resist Democratic attempts to roll back two big tax cuts, which serve as the centerpiece of his economic program.

Bush also stood firm on his request for $87 billion for additional military and reconstruction money in Iraq, despite surveys showing substantial public opposition to the request.

"I need to continue to explain to the American people why it's important that we succeed in Iraq," he asserted.

"The economy's growing, but there are still people looking for work and I recognize that," the president said. "If I didn't have a job, I'd be losing patience, too. I mean, I can understand people's frustrations."

Nevertheless, Bush said the economy has been steadily improving after a recession spurred by the terrorist attacks and a wave of corporate scandals, which soured investor confidence.

Although Democrats have assailed the tax cuts as the major cause of a projected $500 billion budget deficit next year, Bush said he remains confident that the cuts will stimulate consumer spending and create jobs. Additional tax revenue generated by economic growth, along with curtailed government spending, will eventually shrink the deficit, he said.

"I think we need to leave the tax relief the way it is," Bush said, disagreeing with Democratic calls to eliminate part or all of the tax cuts.

As he heads into his 2004 re-election campaign, Bush said he tunes out the torrent of criticism from Democratic contenders. Former four-star Gen. Wesley Clark appears on the verge of entering the race, expanding the field of Democratic challengers to 10.

"I don't pay any attention to it," he said."(It's) background noise for me. I fully recognize we're coming into an election year and there is going to be even more noise.

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© 2003, Fort Worth Star-Telegram Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services