Analysis: President Bush's Farewell Address

Robert G. Kaiser
Washington Post Associate Editor
Thursday, January 15, 2009 8:30 PM

Washington Post associate editor Robert G. Kaiser was online Thursday, Jan. 16 at 8:30 p.m. ET to take your questions and offer his analysis about President Bush's final televised address to the nation.

The transcript follows.


Robert G. Kaiser: Good evening. This was a sad moment. Bush looked frail and uncomfortable to me. His inappropriate little grins were, I suspect, more a measure of that discomfort than anything else. The country is in a disastrous state, and Bush seemed to want to pretend that he was just another president ending his term of office. Tragically, we are coming to the end of one of the least successful presidencies in American history. In a month or two I suspect we will have put Bush entirely behind us.

Please share your own views here tonight. I'll happily post views different than my own if you have them.


Los Altos Hills, Calif.: From what I gather, Bush apparently had some disappointment on minor points but admitted no errors in judgment. Well, it reminded me of the last Ming Emperor in China.

As the rebel troops were entering Beijing, the Emperor remarked, not to any one in particular, that "the Emperor is not the one causing the collapse of the dynasty but the court officials are."

Well, the was Bush. For example it is the intelligence failure and not his decision to invade Iraq without a sound plan that gets us into this mess - in blood and money.

Following his mumbling, however, the Emperor did feel enough shame and duty bound to go out and hanged himself - in line with the Chinese belief that the sovereign is to die with the dynasty. On the other hand I suppose there is no such belief in America so Bush said that after Jan. 20, he will write - really - a book instead. So let us not misunderestimate his capacity not to feel responsible, guilt, and shame.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. Let us make clear that we are not advocating a hanging! But I agree with you that there is a parallel here. The hallmark of the Bush presidency for me has been his total lack of curiosity. Here at the end, he seems incurious about his own failures, and utterly unprepared to acknowledge them. It is a weird moment.


Falls Church, Va.: "Murdering innocents to advance ideology is wrong everytime, everywhere."

What about in Israel....?

And is it me, or did GWB smirk through this whole speech?

Robert G. Kaiser: I thought of Gaza as well when he made that statement. And as indicated above, I too saw the smirk.


Anonymous: How can George Bush consider his presidency a successful one when he has passed on to his successor a failed economy, an unfinished war in Iraq and a failing one in Afghanistan, an Al queda and Osama Bin Laden who are viable and virtually unscathed despite his pledge to eliminate them, a New Orleans very vulnerable to the next hurricane,and of course, just like everything else he's touched, unfinished. And on and on. Can't he acknowledge that he can only say one thing about his presidency that can ring true and that is I'm sorry.

Robert G. Kaiser: No, I think you are asking too much. I don't think we've ever had a president stand up and say sorry I screwed up. But it would make quite a sensation if one did so!


Edgewood, Md.: What could President Bush say to polish his tarnished legacy, with the war in Afghanistan farther away from victory than ever and an economy in deep trouble?

Robert G. Kaiser: Alan Brinkley of Columbia University wrote a fascinating piece in the New Republic a few days ago that contained this observation: "Bush has seemed to be comfortable only when he could make quick and firm decisions, however complicated the issue, and then move on. Admitting mistakes or changing course seems almost contrary to his nature." I think that is dead on.

You can find Brinkley's piece here:


Memphis, Tenn.: If President Bush believes his presidency was successful, why does he feel it necessary to keep defending it? "He protests too much." as they say. President Bush and his administration look more pathetic the more they try to defend themselves and their policies.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for posting.


Kobe, Japan: Is it appropriate to throw a shoe at my television set?

Robert G. Kaiser: Is it HD?


Gaithersburg, Md.: Seven years since a terrorist attack...Mumbai, Spain, London, Kabul, Bali, Baghdad...yeah the war on terror went well these last seven years.

Our land is safe, but we've lost our soul, our economy, the rule of law and international respect in the process.

Will these criminals ever be brought to justice?

Robert G. Kaiser: But it would be wrong to become "isolationist" and retreat behind our borders--didn't he say that also?

The fact that there has been no new attack on the U.S. since 9/11 is the last defense, obviously. Over time we may learn whether in fact government policy prevented or deterred an attack.


Houston: Do you agree with Bush that the U.S. has not been the subject of a terrorist attack due to the efficacy of his executive direction and Dept. of Homeland Security? Or that al Qaeda and the Taliban have in fact been so busy attacking American targets in Iraq and Afghanistan since our invasions that they felt no need to bother with the U.S. Homeland.

Robert G. Kaiser: See the previous answer. I do think it is far to assume that the real Al Qaeda, the people around Osama, would have liked to attack a U.S. target by now, but would they have preferred that to a world which has become so skeptical of American power and so hostile to an American administration--Bush's? I doubt it. I think Bin Laden's cause has been helped, not hindered, by the Bush presidency.


Los Angeles: Didn't Bush/Cheney and their Republican cohorts blow it after gaining control of all federal government branches in 2002? They destroyed any semblance of fiscal conservatism within 4 years. Their destructive behavior included: the 2003-04 enactment of Medicare Part D (Drug Program costing more than projected) during 2 wars and without offsetting Federal spending cuts or tax increases; and borrowing billions from the likes of China to finance their deficit spending. Didn't their spending decisions simply pander for votes rather than adhere to conservative fiscal principles? They are the stuff of 4,300+ dead and 28,000+ injured US soldiers, 100,000+ dead and injured Iraqis and war-related expenditures and consequences far into the future.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for the commentary. Probably a typo, but they got control in 2001.


Augusta, Maine: In sum total, how can the Bush presidency be anything but a failed one?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a helpful way to pose the question, I think, because I don't think there is any way to posit aof success. The best Bush can hope for is a much later judgment that his presidency wasn't as bad as it seemed at the time--something like Mark Twain on Wagner: "Wagner's operas are not as bad as they sound."


Indiana: I proudly voted for John Kerry and Barack Obama for President (yes, even Kerry) and although I strongly disagree with many of the policies the Bush administration has pursued, I think in some areas he made important achievements.

Billions invested in an AIDS program, employing faith-based organizations to help reach out to communities that have been left behind and forgotten, a raise in the CAFE standards, Roberts and Alito, Libya abandoning its nuclear program, and progress made with the North Koreans.

Does this outweigh the thousands of dead and wounded soldiers, the catastrophe Afghanistan has become, the use of fear, the doubling of the debt, the bureaucratic mess that is DHS, Gitmo, etc.? Of course not, but there were some accomplishments, however small that we often forget.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this. I wish we knew more about the AIDs program in Africa, it's a subject that deserves more journalistic attention than it ihas received. I would dispute you on faith-based organizations; very little really happened in this realm. The CAFE standard change was deminimus, and has no real impact on gasoline consumption. Libya is a real accomplishment; North Korea may well not be. Roberts and Alito may please you, they certainly don't please everyone.


Sydney Australia: What essential character traits differentiate President Bush from President elect Obama and in what way, if there are differances, will that manifest in deeds rather than words?

Robert G. Kaiser: Cannot of course answer the second part of your question, but the first is easy. Obama is truly curious. He is reflective. He likes to analyze problems. He likes to see both sides of a question. This assures nothing EXCEPT that he will be very different than his predecessor as president.


Moderate from Los Angeles: Just a comment...many ironic moments in the speech "When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who pursue campaigns of terror." That could easily apply to the US elections.

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks.


Edinboro, Pa.: It was interesting to observe that the President seemed to be unsteady on his feet while approaching the podium. Would you agree this is coincidental to his tenure in the office of the presidency?

Robert G. Kaiser: As I said earlier, I thought he looked very uncomfortable throughout.

I also wonder if the networks understood how thin and insignificant this speech would be?


Saint Paul, Minn. : Hi Robert -- Thanks for taking my question -- I really enjoy these "after hours" chats. I find it ironic that Bush is having this seemingly endless "long goodbye" as he leaves office, with lots of press coverage to boot. If only some of his actions had gotten the same level of scrutiny while he was president. Just my opinion..

Robert G. Kaiser: You give me an opportunity to say something that has been on my mind for a long time. The American press will, I fear, look quite lame in history for its treatment of this president. Right up to his last news conference the other day, White House reporters have let him make patently false statements without calling him on them. The aggressive White House press corps in evidence from the time of Nixon through Bill Clinton is now just a vague memory. I hope it might change now with Obama, but I can't say I expect it to happen.


Fairfax, Va.: In 1993, the World Trade Center was attacked. Until 9/11, there were no foreign-terrorist attacks on the American homeland and we didn't exactly make that many security changes over those years. I'm not saying the Bush administration hasn't stopped other terrorist attacks, I'm just saying there may be some confounding variables.

Robert G. Kaiser: Good point thanks.


Alexandria, Va.: What, if anything, do you expect Bush to speak about in his post-presidency? Carter and Clinton both dedicated much time to philanthropic endeavors (though, Clinton also had a few nice speaking gigs to pay the bills). I know he has spoken a lot about spreading democracy, but somehow I don't think anyone will take him seriously once he leaves the White House.

Robert G. Kaiser: Being taken seriously will be a huge challenge for former President Bush. And I don't think tonight's speech will help him in this regard. Here he got his last clear shot at the American people, at the end of a really painful and difficult eight years, and he could speak only in bromides and generalities. It will be interesting to see how many people watched this speech. I'm betting it wasn't very many.


Cleveland, Ohio: Having viewed the Bush final statement, would you add any lessons to Woodward's commentary this morning?

(Woodward provided an insightful set of lessons for Obama: 10 Take Aways From the Bush Years (Post, Jan. 15)

Robert G. Kaiser: I have to confess I've been busy all day and haven't yet read Bob's piece (which will be published in Sunday's newspaper, if I may refer to that anachronistic product here).

So I don't know if Bob talked about the impact on voters when they feel they are being talked down to. In my view, Bush was talking down to us tonight by assuming, implicitly, that people might actually accept his rosy view of what has been happening to the country and the world while he has been president. I think this tendency to whistle past the graveyard is a large part of the explanation for his remarkably low approval ratings at the end of his presidency.


Reston, Va.: Carter or Bush? Who was worse?

Robert G. Kaiser: Jimmy Carter was a sadly ineffective president, a man who, though very smart, hard-working and thoughtful, lacked leadership skills and allowed himself to be consumed by details that were far below his paygrade. His biggest failings--on the economy--he seemed never to understand.

But can you make a case that he was worse than Bush? Were his economic failings remotely comparable? Did he start any wars he couldn't finish, or lose so many American lives and so much American treasure? Did he show anyting comparable to Bush's incomprehending indifference to the impact of Hurricane Katrina (which seems to persist to this day)? Did he mislead the country the way Bush did? I perceive no contest here myself. I welcome other views.


Danville, Calif.: What is the possible that in view of the lost moral authority of America by a Republican party spanning a generation from Richard Nixon to George Bush Jr., related to matters of torture, war of choice, corruption, and economic governance failure, that the evangelical community of America, as well as America in general, will disown the Republican party for the next generation?

Robert G. Kaiser: I can't speak for evangelicals, but I think there is a very good chance, as I have said in earlier diccussions, that Bush will be, like Herbert Hoover, a friend of Democrats for a generation or more. The Bush "depression," the Bush wars, the Bush deficits will all be with us for a long time to come, and they will be a terrible burdern for the GOP.


Fossil, Oregon: The American people elected this man twice. Once we can understand, but a second time? Come on. It's time some of you Bush supporters accepted your share of the blame for the failures of this administration.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for posting. Your comment reminds me of a point I think about a lot--the true impact of 9/11 on the American psyche. What I am about to say is unprovable, but it has seemed to me for a long time now that the trauma brought on by 9/11 was much deeper than we have been able to acknowledge directly to one another. I interpret the 2004 election results in these terms. I also think Bush was blessed in 2004 to have such a weak opponent as the windsurfer from Nantucket.


Arlington, Va.: We have often talked about "incurious George," but how cognizant do you think he is about how unpopular he is with the country? I mean, he's spent basically his entire second term with an approval rating below 40 percent. The image that sticks out to me from the speech was when he was walking away, sunken shoulders and face tilted toward the ground.

Robert G. Kaiser: Why do you think he would be ignorant of the results of polls that have appeared on the front page of his morning newspapers for four years? A lack of curiosity is not the same as stupidity. Personally I have never thought Bush was stupid--ignorant certainly, but not stupid.


Summerfield, Fla.: When I heard President Bush claiming credit for no new terrorist attacks on US soil since 9/11, I was reminded of a joke I once heard. A man is standing in his living room, stroking his belly and patting his head. When asked what he was doing by his wife, he said, "I'm keeping us safe from a herd of wild elephants!" "But there are no elephants in our house", she said. He replies, "See, it's really working well, isn't it!"

If you shot your enemy in a vital organ, and he was surely dying, would you waste even one more bullet shooting him again? I suggest that our enemies have not launched another attack here because it is totally not necessary. Their first attack was wildly successful. The United States is still dying since 9/11. Better to use resources in other parts of the world.

The billions of dollars wasted on the Iraq War, our Homeland Security Department, and the suspension of some of our Civil Rights and Freedoms, are just some of the misguided policies of the Bush administration that actually are hastening our demise by further weakening our wounded economy. I have only heard about 10 instances where our government can claim that they have thwarted a terrorist plot against our nation, and only two of those had even the remotest chance of being successful.

Citizens should not be lulled into a false sense of security just because our Government is spending lots of our money and claiming ... "See, it's really working well, isn't it!'

Robert G. Kaiser: thanks for this.

Illinois: I thought the comments about the budding democracies in Iraq and Afghanistan were at best rooted in the past or at worst an attempt to once again spin his disastrous handling and decisions in those areas. What do you think?

Robert G. Kaiser: I wish I thought there were budding democracies in those two countries. I wish also that Bush had ever understood either society, even rudimentarily.


Chicago: As President Bush leaves the national stage, who is the leader of the Republican Party? What do they stand for besides tax cuts, no abortions, and no gay marriage?

Robert G. Kaiser: This is a very good question. McCain obviously has some standing as the party leader, but I wonder if he will try to play that role. Frankly I doubt it. A party that has to depend on Mitch McConell and John Boehner as its national spokesmen is not in great shape. But I guess we knew already that the GOP is in pretty dire straits.

When Tony Blair led the British Labor Party to a thumping big victory in 1997, the British Tories--their equivalent of the Republicans--were at a total loss. They went through two right-wing leaders before settlling on Dennis Cameron, the current Tory standard bearer who seems to have a good chance to finally win the next election. That will come after at least a dozen years of Labor Party rule. The Republicans' fate here could easily be similar.


2004: Come on, Bob. The Democrats didn't exactly have a lot of strong candidates vying for the nomination in 2004. Who would have been better than Kerry? The protectionist Gephardt, who co-sponsored the Iraq War resolution? Edwards, who was Clintonesque but without the book smarts? Lieberman, who was more hawkish at times than Bush himself? Clark, who was a Democrat for about a week before jumping into the fray? Dean, the guy who wanted to roll back all the tax cuts, not just for the rich? Kerry obviously wasn't a great candidate, but he was the best of the ones that chose to run.

Robert G. Kaiser: Did I suggest there was a better Democratic alternative? I just said I thought Bush was lucky to get the opponent he got.


Laurel, Md.: I have not always agreed with Bush and his policies, but I have always supported him and I still do. I also thank him for his work and service that he has given this country.

I find it nonsensical that there are those who do not think Bush has been sufficiently apologetic for his decisions and policies. The underlying assumption is that his major decisions and policies were wrong. I find that presumptuous of anyone who has not had to make those decisions, and who does not have all the information that went into making those decisions. Criticism and free exchange of ideas are necessary in a democracy and even if the majority of Americans do not agree with the major decisions made by the Bush administration, it does not necessarily mean the decisions were wrong.

Robert G. Kaiser: Thanks for this.


Cleveland: The point you raise -- "Bush was talking down to us tonight" -- emerges from a world view that is remarkably simplistic: good v. evil; right v. wrong.

In my view, people are rejecting Bush in large part because his narratives no longer explain much. Part of the role of President involves helping us find the patterns -- the meaning -- in events too complex and confusing for us to comprehend on our own.

Bush proved miserable at this increasingly important task.

Robert G. Kaiser: Interesting point. I think I agree with you.


Alexandria, Va.: While I have no desire to be Robin Givhan, I must admit I found Mrs. Bush's bright red suit to be extremely distracting.

Robert G. Kaiser: With this weighty observation I will say goodnight. I'll be back Tuesday right after Obama's speech. Thanks to all who took part in the discussion.

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