Tom Shales on President Bush's Farewell Speech

By Tom Shales
Friday, January 16, 2009

Only his remaining ardent supporters would probably classify last night's TV appearance by President Bush as reality television. On the other hand, detractors -- a sizable group, judging by popularity polls -- would likely say George W. Bush's farewell to the nation, delivered from the East Room of the White House, had the aura of delusion and denial.

America is suffering what is commonly being called the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, for example. Yet in Bush's speech, that crisis was euphemized into "challenges to our prosperity," as Bush took credit for bold steps to remedy the situation.

Then there's Bush's view of Afghanistan. He included the implication that America's presence there helped it go from a sexist to a feminist state.

And when Bush paid tribute to "those who night and day" do their utmost to keep the country safe from terrorists' acts, he implicitly included himself. Others returned to their pre-9/11 lives after the infamous attack, Bush said, "but I never did." And on this went.

Now, nearly everyone can presumably agree that the 15-minute speech, live on all the broadcast networks and the cable news channels, was competently delivered, with Bush maintaining a hearty, rosy, positive demeanor as he defended his eight years in office and, graciously, sent good wishes to his successor, Barack Obama -- who seems to be more legendary than Bush even before spending a single day in the Oval Office.

It's even rather sad that there don't seem to be any commercials on TV for President Bush commemorative plates or mugs or plaques, whereas all manner of Obama merchandise is being hawked heavily. There are many reasons for that, of course.

Although noting Bush has five more days in office before Obama is sworn in, CBS News anchor Katie Couric even prematurely deprived Bush of the traditional introduction afforded America's chief executives when they deliver broadcast speeches or stride out to face the press (which Bush, of course, rarely did): "Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States." Instead, Couric said simply, "And here he is, George W. Bush."

Bush called Obama "a man whose history reflects the enduring promise of our land." Perhaps to associate himself with the Obama groundswell, Bush, late in his speech, introduced four Americans who represent "the best of our country" -- three of whom were African American or Hispanic and who were, conveniently enough, seated in the front row. They included the principal of a charter school that returned to life after Hurricane Katrina, a natural disaster that is also widely considered to have been a Bush disaster.

Others were a former prison inmate who runs a faith-based group for ex-convicts; a Marine staff sergeant and Iraq war hero; and a surgeon who volunteered for medical service in Iraq after his son died in the war. The surgeon was not present, Bush said, because he was about to be deployed. Others in the crowd of invited guests included the mother of a firefighter who lost his life on Sept. 11, 2001, and a retired New York firefighter.

Bush began his speech in Oscar-acceptance style, thanking those who contributed to his presidency, first and foremost on the list being Vice President Cheney. Then came Laura Bush, Bush's daughters and -- though surprisingly not in attendance (unless cameras couldn't find them) -- Bush's parents.

"I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right," Bush said later in the speech, which contained references that reflected Bush's biblical view of history and his role in it. Twice, he mentioned faith-based initiatives; once, he mentioned "moral clarity" and America's status as an agent of it; and he repeated his philosophy that "Good and evil are present in this world, and between the two, there can be no compromise."

After the speech, during biting analysis on the lively MSNBC cable channel, Chris Matthews went after Bush's philosophy with a vengeance, calling it "scary" and less faith-based than Cheney-based -- an adherence by the president, Matthews said, to the thinking of so-called neoconservatives that led to catastrophe in the Mideast, not glory. Matthews called Bush's speech "a score card that only he could design, and of course he did well on it."

Keith Olbermann, anchor of MSNBC's "Countdown," asked rhetorically whether "the only thing missing" from Bush's presentation "was another 'Mission Accomplished' banner," a reference to the banner that flew on an aircraft carrier from which Bush spoke early in the Iraq war that he championed. Even Bush has said since, in one of several farewell interviews, that the banner was probably a boo-boo.

(Instead of sitting around analyzing the speech after Bush ended it, CNN went fairly quickly to more coverage of a plane crash earlier in the day -- one that the news network labeled "Miracle in the Hudson" because no passengers or crew members died when the plane made an emergency landing in the Hudson River.)

Bush ended his speech with becoming eloquence, telling viewers it had been "the privilege of a lifetime to serve as your president" before his benediction: "And so my fellow Americans, for the last time, good night. May God bless this house and our next president, and may God bless you and our wonderful country."

Bush's farewell address may or may not have been his best speech, but it will probably prove among his most popular -- if only because it was his last.

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