AT LEAST President Johnson was human enough to tell the press in a 1967 news conference: "I go to bed every night feeling that I have failed that day because I could not end the conflict in Vietnam."
That makes President Bush's press conference this week even scarier. Not once could he admit to a concrete mistake on either the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or the invasion of Iraq under false pretenses and the current deadly chaos there. A reporter asked Bush: "With public support for your policies in Iraq falling off the way have quite significantly over the past couple of months, I'd like to know if you feel in any way that you've failed as a communicator?"
Bush said: "Gosh, I don't know."
Moments later, the reporter asked, "I just wonder if you feel that you have failed in any way? . . . Have you failed in any way to make the case to the American public?"
The first words out of Bush's mouth were, "I guess if you put it into a political context, that's the kind of thing the voters will decide next November."
It is 2 1/2 years after 9/11 and a year after the invasion of Iraq and Bush still cannot put the two deadliest events of his presidency into a personal and human context. He said the scene of dead people on televisions screens is "gut-wrenching." He bared no evidence that his gut is troubled by a single decision he has made. With dozens of US soldiers killed in recent days, Bush was asked about any comparisons of Iraq to Vietnam. He said, "The analogy is false."
By his own words, the analogy is true. In defending an immoral war, immoral because it was based on an imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction that have not been found, Bush is repeating the worst of Johnson without a glimpse of the gut.
Bush said: "America's objective in Iraq is limited and it is firm. We seek an independent, free, and secure Iraq."
In 1966 Johnson said: "Our purpose is a limited one, and that is to permit self-determination for the people of South Vietnam."
Bush said: "As a proud and independent people, Iraqis do not support an indefinite occupation, and neither does America. We're not an imperial power."
In 1966, Johnson said: "We seek neither territory nor bases, economic domination or military alliance in Vietnam. We fight for the principle of self-determination -- that the people of South Vietnam should be able to choose their own course."
Asked about the lack of weapons of mass destruction, Bush said: "Of course I want to know why we haven't found a weapon yet. But I still know Saddam Hussein was a threat. And the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. . . . There's a historic opportunity here to change the world."
In 1967 Johnson said the world was better off with the US in Vietnam by saying: "Overall, we are making progress. We are satisfied with that progress. Our allies are pleased with that progress. Every country that I know of in that area that is familiar with what is happening thinks it is absolutely essential that Uncle Sam keep his word and stay there."
Bush said: "We will succeed in Iraq. We're carrying out a decision that has already been made and will not change."
In 1968 Johnson said: "So far as changing our basic strategy, the answer would be no."
As the public criticism of the Vietnam War mounted, Johnson mused: "Not many of us want to say `I failed,' or `I made a mistake.' " But he was also capable of saying: "A great many mistakes have been made. We take two steps forward and we slip back one. It is not all perfect by any means. There are a good many days when we get a C-minus instead of an A-plus."
Contrast that to Bush, whose blameless righteousness allows him to proclaim, "Freedom is the Almighty's gift to every man and woman in this world." Bush said nothing about Iraqi civilians, as many as 10,000, killed by US bombs in the name of the Almighty.
Bush was asked, "what would your biggest mistake be?" Bush said: "Hmmm. I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it. . . . I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn't yet. . . . I hope, I don't want to sound like I've made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't -- you just put me under the spot here and maybe I'm not quick -- as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one."
Nothing popped up in his head. All that is left are the analogies. In his press conference, Bush said: "Now is the time, and Iraq is the place in which the enemies of the civilized world are testing the will of the civilized world."
Johnson said 1966: "The time is now, and the place is Vietnam."
© 2004 The Boston Globe Company