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Behind the Interview: Matt Lauer discusses 2010 conversation with George W. Bush

Five years after the interview, Lauer said he wanted to learn what Bush knew and felt during his presidency, rather than after it ended.
/ Source: TODAY

Noting that history is defined by hindsight, TODAY anchor Matt Lauer recently said his 2010 interview with George W. Bush attempted to gauge what the former president knew and felt while holding that office.

"Any time you sit down with a president — whether it's a sitting president or a former president — who has had to remain stoic in the eyes of the public during so many difficult and trying times," Lauer said, "you should be curious about what was truly going on in their minds, their hearts and their gut during those moments."

That interview segment, which TODAY first aired Nov. 8, 2010, was culled from a 2½-hour conversation conducted almost two years after Bush's second presidential term ended Jan. 20, 2009. Before agreeing to talk with Lauer, the 43rd commander in chief had granted few, if any, post-presidency interview requests.

TODAY's Matt Lauer with former President George W. BushPeter Kramer / Peter Kramer/NBC

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"We really spent a lot of time trying to get that interview — a lot of meetings, a lot of letters, a lot of phone calls — because you want to be the first person to have the chance to ask him the questions that everybody wants to ask," Lauer noted.

Among the topics they discussed were the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; American military invasions in the Middle East; the reaction to Hurricane Katrina; and waterboarding as an interrogation technique.

NBC NEWS SPECIALS -- Decision Points: A Conversation with George W. Bush -- Pictured: (l-r) Matt Lauer, President George W. Bush -- NBC News' Matt Lauer continues his conversation with President George W. Bush in Dallas, TX, during Bush's first one-on-one tv interview since leaving the Oval Office -- Photo by: Virginia Sherwood/NBCVirginia Sherwood / Virginia Sherwood/NBC

"When you look back at the two-term presidency of George W. Bush, you almost have to just remind yourself of all the things that happened," recalled Lauer. "When he left the White House, everybody wanted to talk to him. I mean, you just wanted him to put into context and into perspective all of the things that had gone on. And you wanted to challenge him, to be quite honest."

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To Lauer, that meant asking Bush about what he knew while serving as president, not about what would become public knowledge later. "It's very easy in hindsight to talk to someone two years after he leaves office and say, 'What we know now is this,' but I tried not to be a second-guesser," he added. "His book was called 'Decision Points,' and so what I was trying to get at was: 'What did you think, what did you have at your disposal at the moment you made that decision?'"

Lauer did allow for some hindsight, however, when he asked Bush in 2010 if history would deem his presidency a success or a failure. That yielded one of the interview's most memorable quotes. "I hope I'm judged a success," Bush said at the time. "I'm gonna be dead, Matt, when they finally figure it out. And I'm comfortable knowing that I gave it my all, that I love America, and that I know it was an honor to serve."

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Lauer said that, between the announcement and airing of the interview, he received emails and comments from people who expected him to put Bush "on trial," but the anchor opted for another strategy.

"As an interviewer — I always see that as my job — I'll give you as much information as I can give you to make up your own mind," he added.

Follow writer Chris Serico on Twitter.