Since I only became politically aware within the last two or so years, I’m always hesitant to use the phrase, “I’ve never seen …” but I’ve never seen an administration leave Washington with as much retroactive public relations as that of the Bush administration. It’s even been named by the media as the Bush Legacy Project Tour. We’ve seen the President, Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice and even the elusive Vice President, Dick Cheney on multiple talk shows proudly proclaiming the victories of the Bush administration. The latest example of this was the President’s final televised address to the nation.
As I watched him, I could see how he could be the target of both sympathy and utter disdain simultaneously. When George Bush says that he always had our country’s best interests at heart, I believe him. I have no reason to doubt that. He comes from a family that has given decades of service to this country. With the exception of relatively minor acts of terrorism (World Trade Center of 2/23/93, and Oklahoma City) our country had not sustained a direct attack from an enemy since Pearl Harbor and then September 11 came. Bush was faced with an unprecedented loss of life on our shores, lives taken not from a warring country but from a nebulous network of international thugs. Conservatives are right when they say that most Americans in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 would have given Bush carte blanche to make sure this never happened again.
Was the appropriate way to end WWII and avenge Pearl Harbor to drop two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 and bring an horrific end to the lives of many innocent civilians? President Harry Truman did what he thought best for his country. He stands much higher in history then he did immediately upon leaving office. Bush made terrible choices in response to 9/11 but he did so to protect his country. This is where I do feel a sympathy for him. I find his exit from the world stage a sad one. I’m annoyed by folks who say they want to prosecute him for war crimes. I feel he should just be left alone.
But then I listen to some of what Bush says in his farewell address and the disdain starts to creep in. Not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was a “disappointment” to Bush. On MSNBC’s “Hardball”, Chris Matthews gave a brilliant analogy. When a cop sees a man reaching for his wallet and shoots and kills him because he thought the man was reaching for a gun, he doesn’t say “I’m disappointed that the man didn’t have a gun.” He says that he’s sorry he made a terrible mistake in judgement. Instead of regretting his decision based on faulty intelligence, Bush only regrets that the intelligence didn’t justify his decision. He’s happy with the decision and unhappy that he can’t justify it. When you hear this kind of logic you just want to slap the guy.
Bush angrily told a reporter at his last press conference that the government response to Katrina was not slow. He pointed to thousands of people being rescued from rooftops by “chopper drivers” (apparently George forgot the word “pilot”) as evidence of the government’s effective response, as support of his original assessment of “Good job Brownie”. His regrets about Katrina seem limited to whether or not he availed himself of a photo-op during the crisis. He seems oblivious to the fact that thousands were stranded without clean water and care in the immediate aftermath of the flood and that to this day many are still displaced. You watch Bush talk about this stuff and you say “the man just doesn’t get it.” You want to shake him and wake him up.
It is hard to look at the Bush presidency and come away with any sort of success story. To some extent, his administration was a victim of circumstance but sometimes it is not what happens to you but how you react to it that shapes public and historical opinion. I don’t blame Bush for 9/11 even though it happened on his watch. I do blame him for attacking the wrong country. I don’t blame him for Katrina. I do blame him for not taking the role of an empathetic leader at the time and not mobilizing his government to take proper action.
I believe the final assessment of George W. Bush is that he was a man not ready to be President, faced with challenges even the greatest of Presidents would have found daunting. He did his best but within his limitations, his best was no where good enough. Just as he wishes Barack Obama well, I wish him well. I hope he has a peaceful retirement and finds a way to use the role of ex-President to help the world in much the same way that Jimmy Carter, George-41, and Bill Clinton have.
I think given the choice between sympathy and disdain, I fall on the side of sympathy. I think we should let George W. Bush return quietly to citizen Bush and allow history to judge him in good time. That will be more than enough punishment for his sins.