By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
"This is the ultimate exit interview," President Bush told the White House press corps yesterday as he faced it for a final time in the briefing room.
And the interviewee had come with well-rehearsed lines for any question his interviewers could devise.
The worst economy since Herbert Hoover? "Look, I inherited a recession," Bush replied. "This problem started before my presidency."
The government's poor response to Hurricane Katrina? "Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed."
The badly executed Iraq occupation? "Hard things don't happen overnight."
The decline of American prestige? "I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged," Bush answered, proposing that the questioner "Go to Africa. . . . Go to India. . . . Go to China and ask."
By the time he finished, it was hard to imagine why only 23 percent of Americans are able to see the Bush years for the unqualified success that they are. "I thank you for giving me a chance to defend a record that I am going to continue to defend, because I think it's a good, strong record," the president declared.
With seven days left until he surrenders power, Bush will have to do a heck of a sales job to convince the nation of this. Further complicating his last-minute legacy rehabilitation: Nobody seems to be paying attention. The White House had high expectations for yesterday's final, historic news conference. "ONE CORRESPONDENT PER ORGANIZATION," proclaimed the bulletin sent to reporters. "STANDING ROOM ONLY FOR NON-SEAT HOLDERS." But when the appointed hour of 9:15 a.m. arrived, the last two rows in the seven-row briefing room were empty, and a press aide told White House interns to fill those seats.
In his own way, the outgoing president acknowledged that the past five years have, by many measures, been one long pratfall. But he spoke as though he were an innocent bystander, watching the mishaps rather than having any culpability for them. To Bush, they were not mistakes -- just disappointments. "Abu Ghraib obviously was a huge disappointment during the presidency," he said. "Not having weapons of mass destruction was a significant disappointment -- I don't know if you want to call those mistakes or not, but, they were -- things didn't go according to plan, let's put it that way."
Same thing with the failure to pass three free-trade agreements. "A disappointment -- not a mistake, but a disappointment -- was not getting the three trade bills out of Congress on Colombia, Panama and South Korea," he allowed.
And all that nastiness in politics. "I am disappointed by the tone in Washington, D.C.," he said. "It's just the rhetoric got out of control at times."
"Why?" asked ABC News's Ann Compton.
"I don't know why," Bush, the detached observer, replied. "You need to ask those who used the words they used."
Like Vice President Cheney, who on the Senate floor proposed that a prominent Democrat bleep himself?
The president seemed nostalgic and even wistful at times, and he tried to strike up the banter he enjoyed with the press corps when the economy was booming and the wars were going well. "Just seemed like yesterday that I was on the campaign trail," he began, with a tease: "Sometimes you misunderestimated me."
He called on CNN's Suzanne Malveaux in the front row. "You used to be known as Suzanne; now you're Suz-ahn," he said, though the correspondent's first name has not changed in pronunciation during the Bush years. With a French accent, he added: "I'm 'Gahge.' "
He even favored his audience with a final Bushism. In attempting to wish successor Barack Obama well, he found himself saying: "I'm telling you there's an enemy that would like to attack America, Americans, again. There just is. That's the reality of the world. And I wish him all the very best."
Bush once boasted that "I don't spend a lot of time trying to figure me out," and yesterday he mocked talk about the "burdens of the office" he has held. Pretending to whine, he said, "Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch? It's just -- it's pathetic, isn't it, self-pity?"
Yet he was more willing than ever to be put on the couch yesterday during his final appearance in the briefing room -- as when CBS's Jim Axelrod asked him about what columnist Charles Krauthammer calls "Bush derangement syndrome" among the president's harshest critics.
"I don't see how I can get back home in Texas and look in the mirror and be proud of what I see if I allowed the loud voices, the loud critics, to prevent me from doing what I thought was necessary," the newly introspective Bush answered.
He seemed bored, nodding at familiar faces in the room, when he dispatched questions about the day's news. When Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times asked him about pardons, he shot back: "I won't be discussing pardons here at this press conference. Would you like to ask another question?"
Stolberg then invited him to confess his "single biggest mistake" -- and Bush volunteered three little ones.
"Clearly putting a 'Mission Accomplished' on an aircraft carrier was a mistake," he acknowledged. And: "Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake." And finally: "I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the '04 elections was a mistake," a reference to his push to allow some Americans to invest a portion of their own Social Security funds in the stock market.
That trio of small errors, of course, only proved Bush's view that he has gotten the big things right. After a 45-minute tour of his triumphant presidency, he departed. But reporters in the front stood up before all the photographers could get their Bush-walks-out-the-door-for-the-last-time shots. "Down! Down!" the photographers shouted, to no avail.
It was a disappointment. Not a mistake, but a disappointment.