Ronald Reagan leaves the White House with an unshaken belief that Americans are the "custodians of freedom for the world" but frustration that he could not obtain that same freedom for his nine countrymen still held hostage overseas.

On the eve of his departure from the White House, Reagan expressed his confidence in both the nation and his successor, calling George Bush "the man who should be in this office replacing me."Reagan made a last nostalgic visit to the Oval Office where he presided as the nation's 40th president, spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.

Afterward, the president and first lady Nancy Reagan bid a private farewell to the household staff in the residence.

As their final social duty in the executive mansion, they treated Bush and his wife Barbara, Dan Quayle and his wife Marilyn, and the members of the congressional inaugural escort committee to coffee and pastries in the Blue Room of the executive residence.

Then, for the last time, Reagan left the White House as president, his first lady at his side.

After Bush's swearing-in, the Reagans travel by helicopter from Capitol Hill to Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, from where they will fly to Los Angeles.

On the eve of his inaugural, Bush and Reagan met privately for about 10 minutes in the Oval Office, reminiscing about their eight years together. Then the pair went next door to the Roosevelt Room to bid farewell to about 80 senior members of the White House staff, Fitzwater said.

"The president just said he wanted to thank everyone for eight years of work on his behalf," Fitzwater said, adding that Bush paid tribute to Reagan, saying, "I wouldn't be the president if not for my teacher here, and my friend."

Reagan told the group he appreciated Bush's support over the years, quipping, "George never took my pulse once."

The president spent his last full workday doing routine paperwork, giving interviews to reporters and presenting the Medal of Freedom to Secretary of State George Shultz and former U.S. Ambassador to Japan Mike Mansfield.

Reagan's speech at the event was delivered in the patriotic vein that has marked his addresses for decades.

"There is nothing so precious and irreplaceable as America's freedom," Reagan said. "America's freedom does not belong to just one nation. We are custodians of freedom for the world."

And, he added, "George is the man who should be in this office replacing me."

In an interview with wire service reporters, Reagan acknowledged that he was leaving office frustrated over his inability to free Americans held hostage in Lebanon. "We don't know where they are," he conceded.

Even to the end of his presidency, Reagan said, officials continued to explore "quietly and privately" how to win freedom for the nine Americans. "There hasn't been a moment that this isn't on our minds," he said.

On other subjects in the interview:

-Reagan maintained that his administration's arms sales to Iran in 1985 and 1986 did not constitute an attempt to trade arms for the hostages. Reagan called that view "a total media distortion," despite his own comments in a nationally televised speech in March 1987 that the weapons sale initiative "deteriorated in its implementation into trading arms for hostages."

-He said he still believes former White House aides Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter will be acquitted of criminal wrongdoing in connection with the arms deal. He also said that granting pardons for either man before leaving office would have left them "forever after with that guilt hanging over them."

-Reagan disputed polls indicating that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorba-chev's arms-cutting proposals made him a more popular figure with Europeans.

"I refuse to accept the premise," Reagan said. "I can't quite accept that he's more popular than I am."