LAS VEGAS – George W. Bush says he was philosophically opposed to the $17.4 billion in credit to General Motors and Chrysler, but approving those bridge loans in the waning days of his presidency was the right thing to do.

And more than three years later, he still thinks so.

“I believe the marketplace should decide (your fate). If you make a bad decision, you ought to pay,” he says in a question-and-answer session following a short keynote speech at the close of the 2012 National Automobile Dealers Assn. convention here. “The marketplace makes us better.

“The problem is, sometime the circumstances get in the way of the philosophy.”

Bush recalls how the preceding crisis on Wall Street led to “weekend after weekend of financial hell,” for the country in the final months of his second term. “I thought I’d be able to shake a few hands and ride off into the sunset, but that’s not the way it works.”

When the auto industry hit the ropes, his advisors, chiefly Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, warned him that ignoring Detroit’s plight could put the economy into a second spin.

“The first question is, do you believe (the advisors)?” Bush says of the decision process surrounding the initial financial-sector rescue. “But if you don’t believe your advisors, why are they there? So the next question is, do you want (to ignore their advice) and gamble? Do you stay true to your principles? I didn’t want to gamble.

“Then came autos,” he says. “If not for the bridge loan, the gains we had made could have been affected and confidence in the country destroyed.”

Bush urges the dealer group here to keep pushing its political agenda and pressure Congress to start thinking longer term. Presidents, he says, tend to look further into the future, but Congress is too focused on the here and now.

“Politics is always a contact sport,” he says. “Gridlock will be solved when the agenda becomes so compelling that Congress comes together.

“(But) don’t buy into this stuff that we’re through,” he says of the U.S.’s standing as a global power. “We’re not.”

Although Bush sticks by the auto-loan decision, he says there are some things he’d like to do over, noting his slow response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and some political posturing aboard an aircraft carrier during the still-early days of the Iraq war.

“I wish I would have had a different banner,” he says of the “Mission Accomplished” sign positioned behind him during a speech on the ship’s deck. “I get carried away some time.”

Bush claims not to enjoy the spotlight but admits he became accustomed to many of the presidential perks.

“I miss being pampered,” he says. “We had to stop at a few stoplights along the way here.”

dzoia@wardsauto.com