Just As I Thought

I used to think that the day would never come

I loved this NY Times op-ed by Gail Collins this morning…

He’s Leaving. Really.

Tonight President George W. Bush bids adieu to the American people.

Excitement mounts.

The man has been saying goodbye for so long, he’s come to resemble one of those reconstituted rock bands that have been on a farewell tour since 1982. We had exit interviews by the carload and then a final press conference on Monday, in which he reminisced about his arrival on the national stage in 2000. “Just seemed like yesterday,” he said.

I think I speak for the entire nation when I say that the way this transition has been dragging on, even yesterday does not seem like yesterday. And the last time George W. Bush did not factor into our lives feels like around 1066.

So far, the Bush farewell appearances have not drawn a lot of rave reviews. (Most striking, perhaps, was a critique of that final press conference from Ted Anthony of The Associated Press: “It all felt strangely intimate and, occasionally, uncomfortable, in the manner of seeing a plumber wearing jeans that ride too low.”) A Gallup poll did find that his approval rating had risen slightly since they began, but this was probably due to enthusiasm for the part about his going away.

“Sometimes you misunderestimated me,” Bush told the Washington press corps. This is not the first time our president has worried about misunderestimation, so it’s fair to regard this not as a slip of the tongue, but as something the president of the United States thinks is a word. The rhetoric is the one part of the administration we’re surely going to miss. We are about to enter a world in which our commander in chief speaks in full sentences, and I do not know what we’re going to do to divert ourselves on slow days.

The White House has promised that in his final address, the president will be joined by a small group of everyday American heroes, which means that the only person on stage with a history of failing to perform well in moments of stress will be the main speaker.

Bush is going to devote some of his time to defending his record, although there has been quite a bit of that already. Over the last few weeks we have learned that he thinks the Katrina response worked out rather well except for one unfortunate photo-op, and that he regards the fact that we invaded another country on the basis of false information as a “disappointment.” Since Bush also referred to the disappointments of his White House tenure as “a minor irritant” it’s perhaps best to think of the weapons of mass destruction debacle as a pimple on the administration’s otherwise rosy complexion.

If there’s any suspense about the speech it is how many times Bush will use the word “freedom,” which popped up 27 times in his relatively brief second inaugural. The man who gave us Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Freedom Agenda, the USA Freedom Corps and the President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health has so thoroughly debased one of the most profound concepts in our national vocabulary that it’s getting hard to hear it used without remembering Janis Joplin’s line about how freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

There are a lot of ways to approach this farewell-speech business. Ronald Reagan started with winning folksiness, then lurched into a warning against big government and a plea to raise a new generation of patriots that knows “who Jimmy Doolittle was.” Bill Clinton’s sounded very much like a bid for a third term. (“Thirty-five million Americans have used the family leave law …”) On the other hand, anybody listening to it now would surely begin to tear up when Clinton got to the part about how he was leaving the country “on track to be debt-free” by the end of 2009.

History does suggest that Bush performs best in venues like this one, in which he has a long lead time and virtually no actual role in preparing the words he is about to say. But still, what could he possibly tell the country that would change anybody’s opinion about the last eight years?

“My fellow Americans, before I leave you next week I want you to know that …

A) “Although things have gone very wrong, I take comfort in the realization that Dick Cheney was actually in control from the get-go. Honest, I never even knew half the people in the cabinet.”

B) “Laura and I have come to realize that all things considered, retirement to a mansion in Texas is just totally inappropriate. And so we take our leave to begin a new life as missionaries at a small rescue station in the Gobi desert …”

C) “Surprise! This has all actually been a bad dream. It’s really still November of 2000 and tomorrow Al Gore is going to be elected president.”

Otherwise, the best possible approach for a farewell address might be for Bush to follow his father’s lead and just not give one.

She’s right. As I drove home tonight Bush was on the radio; even though his voice just makes me retch these days, I listened for a few moments as he said nice things about Obama and his family… then he mentioned September 11 and I knew what was coming, so I changed the station.

Afterwards, Joan Walsh had this to say:

I can’t believe President Bush’s approval ratings have climbed as he edges to the end of his tragic term. Except I sort of understand it; I felt sorry for him tonight during his farewell address, which was utterly self-indulgent and delusional. It’s hard to see someone leave the presidency so shamed.

Let’s be honest: Thursday night Bush sounded like a kid reciting the high points of fourth grade, or a challenged patient graduating to a new level in some kind of mental health rehab institution. No one could watch that and not be shaken by it. I’ve had my political disagreements with my friend Chris Matthews, but he summed it up really well: It was an abomination, the depiction of a world of presidents in which “every kid gets a trophy who participates.”

Except of course this isn’t a grade school T-ball tournament, this is the self-assessment of the worst president in American history, whose awful decisions could make it impossible for Barack Obama to make the full difference he was elected to make, and that his talent and policy program makes it clear he can achieve.

The Associated Press includes this line in their story:

Bush’s presidency began with the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil and ends with the worst economic collapse in three generations.

I beg to differ. That attack took place 8 months into his presidency. It is far more illuminating to realize that Bush’s presidency started with warnings about bin Laden, not the attack. His presidency started with a memo specifically indicating that al Qaeda wanted to hijack planes and fly them into buildings.
Gosh, doesn’t that just put it into a different perspective?

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