COLLEGE STATION, Texas — A reflective President George W. Bush told graduates of Texas A&M University on Friday that popularity is capricious and what matters is whether they think they've done what is right.
In the final commencement address of his presidency, Bush commiserated with graduates who don't have a job, spoke wistfully about his affection for Texas and described the "tremendous privilege" of serving as president for two terms. He briefly became emotional when he talked about his 84-year-old father, who introduced his son.
Bush leaves office in 39 days, with President-elect Barack Obama to be sworn in on Jan. 20.
Bush made no mention of the failure of a bailout package for the auto industry after his lobbying of Senate Republicans or the latest dire economic news, developments likely to be a coda on his eight years in office.
An Associated Press-GfK poll this week showed just 28 percent of the public approving of the job he is doing, about where Bush has been all fall. Among Republicans, 54 percent approve, a low figure from members of a president's own party, including only 26 percent of whom approve strongly.
Bush told the graduates to pay no heed to those who recommend something more popular.
"Remember that popularity is as fleeting as the Texas wind. Character and conscience are as sturdy as the oaks on this campus," he told the graduates and their families at Reed Arena. "If you go home at night, look in the mirror and be satisfied that you have done what is right, you will pass the only test that matters."
Bush spoke about several Americans who have done remarkable deeds and displayed some emotion when he described his father's career — from World War II Navy pilot to 41st president.
"He reached the pinnacle in government, but he defines his life by other roles — a father who gave unconditional love, a grandfather devoted to his grandchildren, and a beloved husband of the sweetheart he married a lifetime ago. Some of you will leave A&M with a degree that carries this good man's name — George Bush. I have been blessed and honored to have carried it for 62 years," the president said.
In these final weeks, Bush has engaged in a great deal of self-reflection, and he reminisced on Friday about memorable moments of his presidency, with travel to 74 countries and nearly every corner of the nation. He talked about sleeping in Buckingham Palace, feasting in the desert of Abu Dhabi and flying on the presidential helicopter Marine One into cities large and small.
"These days I'm asked a lot about my time as president. Some days have been happy, some days not so happy. Every day joyous. It's been a tremendous privilege," he said during his 23rd and final speech as president to a graduating class.
He joked about his post-presidency prospects.
"To those of you with jobs lined up, congratulations. To those of you not exactly sure what comes next, I know how you feel," he said.
Bush, who wore the light blue gown of his alma mater, Yale, alluded to several Texas A&M traditions and said he was thrilled to be in Aggie land. He said Texas was where he met his wife, Laura, and where his daughters, Jenna and Barbara, were born.
"And next month, when our time in Washington is done, Texas is where we're coming home," said the state's former governor.
Also present as Bush addressed the 3,700 graduates at the College Station campus was his mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, who was released from a Texas hospital 10 days ago after undergoing surgery for a perforated ulcer.
"I am thrilled that our son the president is speaking to you today," she told the crowd.
Said the president to the woman often referred to as the "silver fox:" "Mom, I've been meaning to say this publicly for a long time. Thanks. Thanks for the gray hair."