43's Strange Farewell

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 13, 2009; 9:11 AM

George Walker Bush seemed a humbled man when he began his final news conference yesterday, as if he were suddenly concerned with the opinion of a media establishment he has often dissed and dismissed.

It was a really odd moment.

At the outset, before he revved up to defend his tattered eight-year record, he appeared to be a shrunken figure, a more human figure, as though he were a former president already in his new Dallas home. He was more personable, more reflective, more like the Texan who wanted to be liked than the dead-or-alive warrior who once landed a plane on an aircraft carrier with a spectacularly inaccurate Mission Accomplished banner. The banner, he said, finally, had been a mistake.

He repeated half of a sentence he once delivered to me during a chance encounter--that he doesn't always like what reporters write--deleting the more accusatory part about how they don't always like what he says. I liked the fact that he saluted the press for its hard work, though in the early years he and his administration seemed to delight in stiffing the press.

Bush is in legacy-burnishing mode, of course, as is Dick Cheney, who is telling interviewers he is actually a cuddly guy who seems a Darth Vader type mainly because he wouldn't let journalists into his inner sanctum.

What had to frustrate Bush's critics, though, was that he kept walking up to the line of expressing regret for this or that debacle but pulling back. Perhaps he should have landed in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina--but that would have diverted police resources from the catastrophe, and besides, no one should say the federal response was "slow." He turned a question about misjudgments in Iraq into praise for his judgment in ordering the surge. The Social Security privatization push was a mistake--but only in the timing, he should have pushed immigration reform first. And then there was the strange, mocking riff on how he felt no "self-pity" for the burdens of high office.

There is a modest effort in some precincts of the conservative media to argue that Bush's record isn't as bad as it seems, that some of his successes have been overlooked, that history will view him more kindly.

Perhaps. But he cannot be absolved from responsibility for launching the Iraq war on the basis of nonexistent WMDs, the horrible postwar planning, the bungling of Katrina, and the stunning lapses in financial regulation that led to the economic meltdown in which we are now mired.

Every president leaves office with his share of frustrations and missed opportunities, with many of his dreams unfulfilled. The presidency is a supreme test of mettle for politicians who get elected promising to fix America's problems and invariably, as Barack Obama will learn, fall somewhat short. Yesterday George Bush, who vowed to be a uniter-not-a-divider, took a step toward acknowledging that he was ending his administration far short of what he had promised us.

"President Bush, delivering the final and most introspective press conference of his two terms in the White House, today acknowledged several mistakes and disappointments -- yet voiced a defiant insistence that he had made the choices necessary to defend the nation from threats that still remain," the LAT says.

"President Bush, who four years ago couldn't identify a single mistake by his administration, on Monday ticked off a list of its shortcomings and disappointments, ranging from failures to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to its oft-criticized response to Hurricane Katrina," says the Washington Times.

"President Bush held what he called 'the ultimate exit interview' on Monday," the NYT says, "using the final news conference of his presidency to dispute the idea that the nation's "moral standing has been damaged" by his actions and to warn President-elect Barack Obama that, despite the turbulence in the economy, his most urgent priority must be fighting "an enemy that would like to attack America and Americans again."

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