George W. Bush the wise and somber presidential veteran.
Spare me. But as Bush prepares to leave office, he's trying to strike that sort of tone. I suppose it's easier to pontificate about the office of the presidency than to say, "Boy, did I screw up, I'm outta here." So at a press conference on Monday morning--probably his final as president--Bush discussed the burdens of presidential leadership and noted there will come a moment next Tuesday when Barack Obama, after taking the oath of office and watching the parade, settles into the Oval Office and says to himself, "Oh, my." (Maybe he will add, "Is this my beautiful house?")
But being president is really not that bad, Bush said. According to Fox News, he remarked: "Disappointments will be clearly a minority irritant." (Was that a Freudian slip? Or just another Bushism? According to the official transcript of the press conference, Bush actually said, "minor irritant.")
But the most surprising (I suppose) element of his non-mea-culpa is his insistence that he is unpopular because he did the right thing. For instance, he said that it would have been wrong for him to back the Kyoto global warming treaty just to be popular. Of course. But that doesn't mean trashing it was the correct thing to do. Bush seems to believe that popular disgust with some of his actions is a signal that he made the hard and right choice. See Iraq.
On Fox News Sunday, Bush had this telling exchange with Brit Hume:
HUME: People who come to see you here and meet with you, from the outside, are continually taken by surprise by your evident good humor and good mood and the fact that with low poll ratings and various troubles besetting the country and all you've been through, that you're not down -- that you're fine. And everybody remarks on it. How do you explain that?
G.W. BUSH: Well, I'm better than fine. I am proud of the accomplishments of this administration. I am thankful for the people that have worked so hard to serve our country. I know I gave it my all for eight years. And I did not sell my soul for the sake of popularity. And so when I get back home and look in the mirror I will be proud of what I see.
At the press conference, while discussing what he might have done to be more "popular," Bush defended his handling of Hurricane Katrina: "Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off...after the storm passed....It's a pretty quick response."
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What cable news was he watching at the time? Even Fox News reporters and anchors were then decrying the administration's handling of the catastrophe. Bush lost an American city, and he appears to believe that he responded adequately. And should he have done a better job just to be popular?
At the press conference, he also said:
"I strongly disagree with the assessment that our moral standing has been damaged. It may be damaged amongst some of the elite. But people still understand America stands for freedom; that America is a country that provides such great hope."
But poll after poll shows people abroad have a more negative view of the United States than before Bush invaded Iraq. Is he delusional? (That's a rhetorical question.)
On Fox, asked about his Republican Party and its recent losses, Bush remarked, "Look, obviously we got whipped in 2008. And there will be a new wave of leadership arriving on the scene." But it was his leadership that led to the whipping--and to many of the problems the nation faces today. Bush clearly has not processed all this.
At his Monday face-off with reporters, Bush said that when gets back to Texas he will be able to look into the mirror every day without regret. How nice. Is it disturbing (or harrowing or frightening) that this nation, during such consequential times, had as a leader a man with so little depth? After all, only people without much soul have no regrets.