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."

"Looking back over the long arc of his turbulent presidency, Mr. Bush was by turns impassioned and defiant, reflective and light-hearted, even as he conceded that some things 'didn't go according to plan.' He confessed a litany of mistakes, refused to talk about pardons, cautioned the Republican Party to be inclusive and wondered aloud what it would feel like to make coffee for his wife, Laura, at their ranch in Crawford, Tex., on the morning after Mr. Obama takes his place."

Didn't go according to plan--that's one way to put it.

The Atlantic's James Fallows feels a bit sorry for Bush, but:

"On matters of policy, he revealed himself to be as isolated and out of touch as his critics (including me) would have assumed all along. Two illustrations: he hotly challenged the premise of one question that his policies had made America less prestigious and respected around the world, saying that was just the view of some 'elites' and other pantywaists in part of Europe . . .

"So too with his wistful, regretful-sounding comments about the 'harsh tone' in Washington DC. He was completely believable in saying that he hoped things would go better for Barack Obama. But does he recall the name Karl Rove? Does he remember which vice president told a U.S. senator from the other party to [bleep] off, on the Senate floor? There is no point refighting these wars. I'm simply saying: the very sincerity of the president's comments indicated how isolated he has been, or what he has chosen to forget.

"Nonetheless: I think even people who oppose the Bush administrations policies would find it somewhat harder to dislike him viscerally after this performance -- rather than getting angrier the more they see him, as with most of his appearances over these last eight years."

Slate Editor Jake Weisberg says we may never know the worst:

"Bush's three most obvious legacies are his decision to invade Iraq, his framing of a global war on terror after Sept. 11, and the massive financial crisis. Each of these constitutes a separate epic in presidential misjudgment and mismanagement. It remains a brainteaser to come up with ways, however minor, in which Bush changed government, politics, or the world for the better. Among presidential historians, it is hardly an eccentric view that 43 ranks as America's worst president ever. On the other hand, he has nowhere to go but up.

"In a different sense, however, Bush's comment has some validity to it. We do not know how people will one day view this presidency because we, Bush's contemporaries, don't yet understand it ourselves. The Bush administration has had startling success in one area--namely keeping its inner workings secret. Intensely loyal, contemptuous of the press, and overwhelmingly hostile to any form of public disclosure, the Bushies did a remarkable job at keeping their doings hidden for eight years."

A starkly different assessment, you will not be shocked to hear, from the Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes:

"The postmortems on the presidency of George W. Bush are all wrong. The liberal line is that Bush dangerously weakened America's position in the world and rushed to the aid of the rich and powerful as income inequality worsened. That is twaddle. Conservatives--okay, not all of them--have only been a little bit kinder. They give Bush credit for the surge that saved Iraq, but not for much else.

"He deserves better. His presidency was far more successful than not. And there's an aspect of his decision-making that merits special recognition: his courage. Time and time again, Bush did what other presidents, even Ronald Reagan, would not have done and for which he was vilified and abused. That--defiantly doing the right thing--is what distinguished his presidency.

"Bush had ten great achievements (and maybe more) in his eight years in the White House, starting with his decision in 2001 to jettison the Kyoto global warming treaty so loved by Al Gore, the environmental lobby, elite opinion, and Europeans. The treaty was a disaster, with India and China exempted and economic decline the certain result. Everyone knew it. But only Bush said so and acted accordingly.

"He stood athwart mounting global warming hysteria and yelled, 'Stop!' He slowed the movement toward a policy blunder of worldwide impact, providing time for facts to catch up with the dubious claims of alarmists. Thanks in part to Bush, the supposed consensus of scientists on global warming has now collapsed."

Hysteria? Collapsed? Is the ozone layer thinning or something?

Guess who totally outmaneuvered the Democratic Senate leadership with a relentless media offensive?

"Roland Burris, whose appointment to the Senate was in limbo for nearly two weeks, was accepted Monday by Democratic leaders, and he immediately struck a conciliatory tone with the very people who had tried to keep him out of Congress," the Chicago Tribune reports.

Score one for Blagojevich.

Obama, it seems, is quite aware of the controversy about his selection of Rick Warren for the inauguration:

"President-elect Barack Obama, facing criticism from gay rights advocates for picking an evangelical pastor who helped overturn same-sex marriage in California to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, has chosen the openly gay Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire to offer a prayer at a pre-inauguration event on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial," the Boston Globe reports.

At Pajamas Media, Jennifer Rubin says:

"After weeks of smooth sailing and cooing press coverage, the Obama teamhas been buffeted by a round of troubles, goofs and harsh reaction, much of that coming from Obama's own party . . .

"It seems that thetransition from campaigning to governing may not be as easy as Obama and his media fan club imagined. And things will only get tougher. There are two main challengeson the immediate horizon -- either one of which can bring what is left ofthe honeymoon to an abrupt end."

Which brings a pretty sharp reaction from Joe Klein:

"You've got to wonder what planet Jennifer Rubin is living on. These terrible troublesthat she describes as buffeting Obama seem pretty small potatoes to me. This is irresponsible press strategy 101: Anytime anyone raises an objection--Dianne Feinstein on Leon Panetta's CIA appointment--it is described as a 'crisis.' (Some crisis: Feinstein was supporting Panetta within 24 hours.) Rubin is a right-wing propagandist, so she has a stake in Obama's failure, but I've seen plenty of similar behavior among more mainstream journalists desperate to gin up a story. Remember when the Blagojevich scandal was the first 'crisis' of his transition? For those of us who lived through Bill Clinton's truly disastrous transition, Obama's has been remarkably well run . . .

"There will be crises ahead, real ones. Obama will screw up from time to time; no doubt, he'll screw up big time on something or other. I can't think of a president who didn't. (This in contrast to George W. Bush who screwed up big time on practically everything.) But he hasn't made any telling mistakes yet."

Here's why I think that is unfair to Rubin: She was mainly quoting accounts from Politico and David Broder. Yes, the MSM gin up crises all the time, and I'm not defending that. But it's part of the landscape.

We were told Joe the Plumber was going off to cover the Gaza war. Instead he declared war on the press. Andrew Sullivan has the excerpts:

"I'll be honest with you. I don't think journalists should be anywhere allowed war. I mean, you guys report where our troops are at. You report what's happening day to day. You make a big deal out of it. I think it's asinine. You know, I liked back in World War I and World War II when you'd go to the theater and you'd see your troops on, you know, the screen and everyone would be real excited and happy for 'em. Now everyone's got an opinion and wants to downer, ah, down soldiers. You know, American soldiers or Israeli soldiers.

"I think media should be abolished from, uh, you know, reporting. You know, war is hell. And if you're gonna sit there and say, 'Well look at this atrocity,' well you don't know the whole story behind it half the time, so I think the media should have no business in it.

"The conservative blogosphere began as a way to ask more questions, to get more scrutiny out there, to add new perspectives to the cocoon of the MSM, to crack the silly professional smugness that infected many newsrooms. It is ending in the dissemination of propaganda in the defense of war and an attack on journalism itself."

But it probably beats fixing stopped-up toilets.

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