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The Confessor in Chief

By Dana Milbank
Friday, December 19, 2008

Slowly, painfully, self-awareness has come to George W. Bush.

"Turns out this isn't one of these presidencies where you ride off into the sunset, you know, waving goodbye," the president told the conservative American Enterprise Institute yesterday. He gave a little wave to illustrate his point; the sympathetic audience obliged him with a laugh.

It was the latest stop on what amounts to a legacy-salvaging tour for Bush. At the same time, a Bush Legacy Project, under the auspices of Karl Rove, is said to be at work on reinventing the president's image. But whatever they come up with, it will be difficult to displace in the public imagination the more obvious symbols of Bush's reign: The "Mission Accomplished" banner. The flight suit. Yellowcake. Curveball. Katrina. Brownie. The Pretzel. The Segway. The Shoe. An incipient depression. My Pet Goat.

A poll released yesterday by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found that just 11 percent of people think Bush will be remembered as an outstanding or above-average president.

When John Dickerson, then of Time magazine, asked Bush back in 2004 about his "biggest mistake," the president was stumped. Now, however, he seems to be a walking confession booth.

"I think I was unprepared for war," he told ABC News's Charles Gibson.

"I am the president during a major economic problem," he told Fox News's Bret Baier.

"I've abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system," he confessed to CNN's Candy Crowley.

Yesterday he took his regrets to a gathering at the Mayflower Hotel of AEI, a think tank that has provided Bush with both ideas and manpower. It was bound to be a supportive audience, and in the first row sat Paul Wolfowitz and Michael Barone. The press was kept at a safe distance of 35 feet -- the outer limit of shoe-throwing range -- and behind two barriers. Five Secret Service agents stood around the stage. The White House even tried to confine retired Washington Post editor Len Downie to the press section rather than the audience; possibly he was considered to be a shoe-flight risk.

AEI President Christopher DeMuth did his best to polish the presidential résumé during his introduction. "It'll be many years before it is possible to take a full account of the Bush presidency," he cautioned. "His contemporaries -- he, himself -- will not have the last word on the matter." Still, DeMuth praised Bush's "major reforms" of taxes, his "firm" free-trade position, his "superlative" judicial appointments and even his "most important disappointment," Social Security.

Bush, slouched in a chair, his legs crossed and his jacket open wide, was considerably harder on himself. He spoke so softly that some in the rear stood, leaned in and cupped their ears to hear. "We lost 533,000 jobs last month," he volunteered. And: "Wall Street got drunk, and we got a hangover." And: "I came with the idea of changing the tone in Washington and frankly didn't do a very good job of it."

The 62-year-old president looked tired, and his rapidly graying hair showed the aging effects of the job. He presented a glass-half-full view of his polices. "Obviously, we weren't successful about getting comprehensive immigration reform; nevertheless, I feel good about having tried," he offered. On Social Security, likewise, "it didn't succeed, but nevertheless I used the presidency, the executive branch, the concept of the presidency, to lay out in -- a way forward."

He assured the conservatives that "I have been a firm believer in markets" before allowing that this "may sound contradictory to some of the polices that I have been making recently." And he suggested that his free-market principles would be bent again to bail out the automakers. "I believe that good policy is not to dump [on Barack Obama] a major catastrophe in his first day in office."

Moderator DeMuth tried to help the president with praise for his "idealism and serenity of mind" and with friendly questions. But this did not always have the intended effect.

"Another book that you famously read was Eliot Cohen's 'Supreme Command,' " DeMuth said, referring to an academic affiliated with AEI. "Do you think he got it right in that book?"

"I can't even remember the book," Bush replied. "I remember reading it, but give me a synopsis."

At times, he seemed philosophical about his position: "Presidents will come and go with their strengths and weaknesses, but the ship of state sails on." At other times, he seemed defensive: "I'm looking forward to the true history of this financial crisis being written." But he had no doubt that Republicans would recover from their current woes.

"We'll come back, absolutely," he said. "And I'll be out there, the old sage, sitting around." Until then, the sage promised, he won't "spend a lot of time second- guessing" Barack Obama. "I believe once the president gets off the stage, you get off the stage and let the next man do the job."

For now, that's about as good a legacy as he can hope for.

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