Bush Ends With a Whimper

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, January 16, 2009; 1:08 PM

President Bush bid the nation goodbye last night with a simpering speech that may have appealed to those who still believe in him, but offered nothing to change the minds of the vast majority of Americans who don't.

Bush smirked and twitched while delivering a highly defensive farewell address in which he tried to hearken back to his glory days right after 9/11, sought credit for having made "tough decisions" and insisted his intentions were good.

There was no real attempt to bind the wounds he leaves in his wake. There was no apparent awareness of irony when he held up his administration as a champion of moral clarity and human dignity. He even gave himself credit for his response to the financial crisis he didn't see coming: "When challenges to our prosperity emerged, we rose to meet them," he said.

And he tried one last time to conflate his "war on terror" with the unrelated debacle in Iraq, recasting the American troops perilously occupying that benighted country as "part of a broader struggle" between "a small band of fanatics" who demand "total obedience to an oppressive ideology" and a system "based on the conviction that freedom is the universal gift of Almighty God, and that liberty and justice light the path to peace."

In a fitting end for a presidency that has often operated in its own reality, Bush was greeted warmly by his audience -- a hand-picked selection of hangers-on and human props -- even as public-opinion polls show that the nation is way past ready to move on.

The Reaction

David Hiltbrand writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "At times, as he spoke before a handpicked audience in the East Room, Bush seemed as if he were channeling the Will Ferrell spoof of him, the blithely unaware leader who had declared the Oval Office 'a bummer-free zone.'

"The closest he came to acknowledging failure was a vague wave in its general direction. 'I have experienced setbacks,' he said. 'There are things I would do differently if given the chance.'

"But the strain Bush has been under showed. His right eye kept narrowing to an uncontrollable squint."

Robert G. Kaiser writes on washingtonpost.com: "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. . . .

"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."

Tom Shales writes in The Washington Post: "Only his remaining ardent supporters would probably classify last night's TV appearance by President Bush as reality television. On the other hand, detractors -- a sizable group, judging by popularity polls -- would likely say George W. Bush's farewell to the nation, delivered from the East Room of the White House, had the aura of delusion and denial.

"America is suffering what is commonly being called the most serious economic crisis since the Great Depression, for example. Yet in Bush's speech, that crisis was euphemized into 'challenges to our prosperity,' as Bush took credit for bold steps to remedy the situation."

MSNBC's Keith Olbermann asked former White House press secretary (turned Bush critic) Scott McClellan for his reaction to the speech. "It's hard to talk about moral clarity when you have really tarnished the government's moral standing," McClellan said bluntly.

"There are really two problems that they don't seem to get. First of all, the public trust. The president, long ago, sadly, lost the public trust. They are no longer listening to what he has to say or buying what he is selling. You know, unless, he is willing to come out and talk candidly about his own mistakes, his own policy mistakes, and address those issues openly with the American people, then they are not really tuning in. It's the same old song. It's just a different variation of it. It's much like listening to Charlie Brown's teacher.

"The second part of this is . . . it's terribly mistaken to think that good intentions and your inner decency will somehow outweigh your actions and policies, and the way you went about them with the American people. They are terribly mistaken if they think that the American people are going to look at that as more important than what he actually did while he was in office."

Peter Wallsten writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The address capped a weeks-long effort to rehabilitate an image battered by economic turmoil, an unpopular war in Iraq and controversial spying, interrogation and anti-terrorism tactics. . . .

"In reviewing his two terms in office Thursday night, Bush in effect sought to bring viewers back in time seven years, to the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, a period in which he enjoyed record-high approval ratings, in the 90s.

"One of the firefighters in the East Room audience was Bob Beckwith, who stood by Bush at ground zero on Sept. 14, 2001, as the president addressed rescue workers using a bullhorn. Another was Rocco Chierichella, who during those remarks shouted, 'I can't hear you,' spurring one of Bush's most memorable lines: 'I can hear you. The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon.'

"But Thursday showed the distance Bush has traveled since then. The nation saw a grayer man, his approval ratings in the 30s, facing a country in which many are poised to celebrate his departure. . . .

"Bush's speech was notable, too, for what he did not say. He did not mention the collapse of the rationale for invading Iraq -- the failure to find weapons of mass destruction. Nor did he mention terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, whom Bush once vowed to capture 'dead or alive' but who this week released a taunting audiotape reminding the world that he will outlive Bush's presidency.

"Even as Bush maintained that Americans prospered during his tenure, he did not mention that wages have stagnated or that, despite his goal of forging an 'ownership society,' a mortgage foreclosure crisis now is forcing many people from their homes. . . .

"Presidential historian Allan Lichtman said Bush was unlikely to have much success persuading Americans to reassess his tenure but that he was trying harder than any of his modern predecessors to do so."

The Associated Press also takes a look at what Bush left unsaid. For instance: "Bush said: 'Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States.'

"He did not mention that violence in Iraq still persists despite improved security, that Iraq remains gripped by hostility between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, that most Americans think the war was a mistake, and that weapons of mass destruction -- the original rationale for the war -- were never found."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan gave similar White House addresses in their final days, although both were delivered in the Oval Office and without an audience. Jimmy Carter gave a special State of the Union address to Congress at the end of his term. One recent exception was Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, who decided against any kind of farewell speech after his defeat by Clinton. . . .

"[W]hile Clinton and Reagan were able to point to clear improvements in the economy and foreign affairs in their tenures, Bush's task was made more difficult by the lingering conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq and the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression."

Oddly enough, John D. McKinnon writes in the Wall Street Journal: "White House officials said the 13-minute address was aimed in part at rekindling his ties to the public after a rough second term that left his approval rating at just 27%, among the lowest for a departing president in modern history. Other presidential speeches in the past two months have laid out Mr. Bush's record for future historians. But Thursday's prime-time speech was going for the public's heart."

Look on the Bright Side

And in yet another exit interview, Bush tells Tara Wall of the Washington Times about the upside to the current economic crisis: "One aspect of these recent times that has been overlooked is the fact that the price of gasoline has gone down from near $4 to under $2, which is stimulative, because people have got nearly $2,000 on an annualized basis in their pocket -- that's $2,000 per family -- as a result of gasoline going down," Bush said. "That's stimulative."

White House Empties Out

Daniel Libit writes for Politico: "The president will be the president until 12 noon Tuesday, but most of his employees will be gone by the close of business Friday.

"They'll turn in their BlackBerrys, laptops, building passes and gym keys.

"And by the time the weekend is out -- before the new administration can reverse course on waterboarding or SCHIP or anything else -- teams of painters and carpet cleaners will have wiped away any hint that they ever set foot in the White House. . . .

"Only about 20 to 25 political staffers are expected to show up for work at the White House on Monday. Less than a dozen will be on the premises on Inauguration Day."

Poll Watch

Lydia Saad writes for Gallup: "A mere 17% of Americans believe George W. Bush will go down in history as an outstanding or above-average president -- out of sync with Bush's own confidence that his presidency will be appreciated with time. Another 23% of Americans predict he will be remembered as 'average' while 59% say 'below average' or 'poor.' . . .

"Bush's net positive score (total percent outstanding or above average minus total percent below average or poor) is worse than Nixon's: -42 for Bush versus -33 for Nixon.

"There is also a bit of irony embedded in the presidential rankings. President Bush falls well below his father, George H.W. Bush, whose defeat in 1992 was reportedly one of Bush's motivations for running for governor of Texas in 1994 and, later, for president."

Susan Page and Mimi Hall write in USA Today: "Americans are as down as they've been in decades about the state of the country and its polarized politics, even as they express soaring confidence that Barack Obama will be able to turn things around. . . .

"A majority of those surveyed say Obama will be able to achieve every one of 10 major campaign promises, from doubling the production of alternative energy to ensuring that all children have health insurance coverage.

"Seven in 10 predict the nation will be better off when Obama's term ends in four years."

USA Today has Bush's approval at 34 percent, Vice President Cheney's at 32 percent - and Obama's at 83 percent.

Beth Fouhy writes for the Associated Press that its poll found: "Sixty-one percent believe Bush will go down in history as a below average or poor president, including 31 percent of Republicans. Just 32 percent of Republicans say he will be remembered as above average.

"Indeed, when asked why she believed Obama was likely to succeed, Lauri Raleigh, 48, of Hanover, Pa., replied, 'Because he's not Bush.'"

Dana Blanton writes for Fox News that "most Americans think George W. Bush is a good person" and yet "more than twice as many people think history will be cruel to Bush as think history will be kind."

On Looking Backward

Carrie Johnson writes in The Washington Post: "Attorney General-designate Eric H. Holder Jr. brushed aside Republican concerns about his record yesterday as he charted a new, less divisive course for the Justice Department on issues of national security, civil rights and financial crime.

"In his confirmation hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Holder declared that the interrogation practice known as waterboarding amounts to torture, departing from the interpretation of his Bush administration predecessors. He promised to perform a 'damage assessment' to evaluate how politically motivated hiring during the Bush era continues to affect the department. And he pledged to work closely with Congress and serve as 'the people's lawyer,' rather than devote his loyalty solely to the incoming president, Barack Obama. . . .

"Holder avoided directly addressing the possibility that Bush-era officials could face criminal prosecutions for their involvement in wiretapping and interrogation policies. But he quickly followed up by telling lawmakers that, when he called for a 'reckoning' last year, he was referring not to indictments but to gathering information. Holder also cited the words of Obama, who has decried calls 'to criminalize policy differences where they might exist.'"

Mark Mazzetti writes for the New York Times: "Michael V. Hayden, the departing director of the Central Intelligence Agency, struck a defiant and occasionally combative tone on Thursday as he vigorously defended the C.I.A.'s network of secret prisons and its aggressive interrogation methods.

"Giving no ground to critics who argue that the C.I.A.'s detention and interrogation program used torture and produced little information about the workings of Al Qaeda, Mr. Hayden credited the C.I.A. with striking repeated blows on the terror network, and said that any effort to investigate the past would breed risk aversion in the ranks of the clandestine service.

Joby Warrick writes in The Washington Post: "President-elect Barack Obama has privately signaled to top U.S. intelligence officials that he has no plans to launch a legal inquiry into the CIA's past use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques, agency director Michael V. Hayden said yesterday.

"Obama learned key details of the CIA's interrogation practices in a closed-door meeting last month, and afterward made clear that he was more interested in protecting the country from terrorist attacks than investigating the past, the outgoing CIA director said."

But Paul Krugman writes in his New York Times opinion column: "I'm sorry, but if we don't have an inquest into what happened during the Bush years -- and nearly everyone has taken Mr. Obama's remarks to mean that we won't -- this means that those who hold power are indeed above the law because they don't face any consequences if they abuse their power.

"Let's be clear what we're talking about here. It's not just torture and illegal wiretapping, whose perpetrators claim, however implausibly, that they were patriots acting to defend the nation's security. The fact is that the Bush administration's abuses extended from environmental policy to voting rights. And most of the abuses involved using the power of government to reward political friends and punish political enemies. . . .

"[L]et's also not forget [Iraq's] failed reconstruction: the Bush administration handed billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to politically connected companies, companies that then failed to deliver. And why should they have bothered to do their jobs? Any government official who tried to enforce accountability on, say, Halliburton quickly found his or her career derailed. . . .

"And then there was the biggest scandal of all: Does anyone seriously doubt that the Bush administration deliberately misled the nation into invading Iraq?. . .

"Now, it's true that a serious investigation of Bush-era abuses would make Washington an uncomfortable place, both for those who abused power and those who acted as their enablers or apologists. And these people have a lot of friends. But the price of protecting their comfort would be high: If we whitewash the abuses of the past eight years, we'll guarantee that they will happen again."

And House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. writes in a Washington Post op-ed: "I understand that many feel we should just move on. They worry that addressing these actions by the Bush administration will divert precious energy from the serious challenges facing our nation. I understand the power of that impulse. Indeed, I want to move on as well -- there are so many things that I would rather work on than further review of Bush's presidency. But in my view it would not be responsible to start our journey forward without first knowing exactly where we are."

Legacy Watch

The USA Today editorial board writes: "Perhaps future generations will be kinder to George W. Bush than today's harsh critics.

"Perhaps. But, at least from today's vantage point, it is hard to see Bush making a Truman-like comeback in popular standing. . . .

"Bush has often spoken about not leaving difficult problems to his successors, yet Barack Obama inherits a plate stacked higher with them than any president since FDR. To review some of Bush's early campaign themes -- limited government, a humble foreign policy, a different tone in Washington -- is to see a president who lost his bearings.

"For these and other reasons, Bush's record, at least for now, does not lend itself easily to a positive assessment. History isn't likely to regard him as the worst president ever, as some liberal historians have declared. But with only a slight reservation about not knowing what the future will bring, as he departs it is hard to place him anywhere but in the lower tier."

The White House assigned former staffer Peter Wehner to write a rebuttal for USA Today: "Like other presidencies, Bush's two terms in office were far from flawless; human imperfection, an untidy and dangerous world, and a vast federal bureaucracy ensured that," Wehner writes.

"But facing unprecedented challenges to our nation -- including three a once-in-a-century crises (the attack on our homeland, Hurricane Katrina and the financial meltdown) -- George W. Bush kept a steady hand on the wheel.

"He guided us through turbulent waters. He is also a man of grace and good character. Like Harry Truman before him, Bush will be honored in history."

Ken Bode writes in the Indianapolis Star op-ed: "Last week, the White House issued a report titled, '100 Things Americans May Not Know About the Bush Administration.' Bush did 12 press interviews, one final press conference and a final speech to the nation Thursday night. The number one assertion in all of these: 'I kept America safe.'

"Well, the number one fact Americans need to remember is that on Aug. 6, 2001, Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice were given an intelligence report headed, 'Osama Bin Laden Is Determined to Strike in the U.S.' Rice was warned that instigators might already be in place. What did The Decider do? He handed back the report to the CIA analyst and said, 'All right, you've covered your ass now.' . . .

"'We kept America safe' is their first great lie."

Washington Post opinion columnist Charles Krauthammer writes that Bush will be vindicated by Obama continuing so many of his policies. Mind you, in Krauthammer's view, Bush has also been an extraordinary martyr.

"In Iraq, Bush rightly took criticism for all that went wrong -- the WMD fiasco, Abu Ghraib, the descent into bloody chaos in 2005-06. Then Bush goes to Baghdad to ratify the ultimate post-surge success of that troubled campaign -- the signing of a strategic partnership between the United States and Iraq -- and ends up dodging two size 10 shoes for his pains," Krauthammer writes.

"Absorbing that insult was Bush's final service on Iraq. Whatever venom the war generated is concentrated on Bush himself. By having personalized the responsibility for the awfulness of the war, Bush has done his successor a favor. Obama enters office with a strategic success on his hands -- while Bush leaves the scene taking a shoe for his country."

Bob Woodward writes in a Washington Post opinion piece about "10 lessons that Obama and his team should take away from the Bush experience." Three of them are basically identical: "The president must insist that everyone speak out loud in front of the others, even -- or especially -- when there are vehement disagreements"; "Presidents need to draw people out and make sure bad news makes it to the Oval Office"; "Presidents need to foster a culture of skepticism and doubt."

Pardon Watch

At yesterday's briefing, White House Pres Secretary Dana Perino told reporters asking about pardons to "talk to the hand."

She added: "I don't anticipate that you'll have any, necessarily, on the 20th, but I can't say that for sure because a President always holds that power and that right up until the time that they're not -- no longer President. So I'm not going to restrain him and that power in any way."

Nevertheless, it's not too late for one last round of furious speculation over who Bush will pardon on his way out the door -- and when. Will there be some sort of blanket pardon for members of his own administration involved in his controversial interrogation and surveillance programs? Will Scooter Libby get a full pardon to go along with his commutation? What about Marion Jones? Or Conrad Black?

Come over to my discussion group, White House Watchers, and weigh in.

Those Missing E-Mails

Pete Yost writes for the Associated Press: "A federal court tore into the Bush White House on Thursday over the issue of millions of apparently missing e-mails, saying the administration failed in its obligation to safeguard all electronic messages.

"In a four-page opinion, Magistrate Judge John Facciola said the White House is ignoring the court's instructions to search a full range of locations for all electronic messages that may be missing. . . .

"The Justice Department says the government has finished a search that entailed spending more than $10 million to locate 14 million e-mails thought to be missing in 2005, when White House technical experts discovered a problem with the system.

"But in a court filing following Facciola's ruling, the administration revealed it has made almost no use of disaster recovery backup tapes. They are the one source that would make it possible to determine for certain whether any e-mails are missing e-mails and if so, how many."

R. Jeffrey Smith writes in The Washington Post: "The dispute over recovery of the missing e-mails was provoked by the disclosure four years ago that the White House, in switching to a new internal e-mail system shortly after President Bush's election, had abandoned an automatic archiving system meant to preserve all messages containing official business. Under the new system, any of the 3,000 or so regular White House employees could access e-mail storage files, enabling them to delete messages.

"In a further sign of judicial concern, U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly ordered the White House yesterday to continue to preserve records related to its decision-making about the e-mails."

Daniel Schulman writes for Mother Jones: "Facciola remarks on the true urgency of the situation: 'The issues that have now arisen are now confronted in true emergency conditions. As this is being written, there are two business days before the new President takes office and this case deals with the records created by the administration that is leaving office.' He notes that there is a 'profound societal interest' in preserving the Bush administration's email records."

FISA Watch

James Risen and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "In a rare public ruling, a secret federal appeals court has said telecommunications companies must cooperate with the government to intercept international phone calls and e-mail of American citizens suspected of being spies or terrorists.

"The ruling came in a case involving an unidentified company's challenge to 2007 legislation that expanded the president's legal power to conduct wiretapping without warrants for intelligence purposes.

"But the ruling, handed down in August 2008 by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review and made public Thursday, did not directly address whether President Bush was within his constitutional powers in ordering domestic wiretapping without warrants, without first getting Congressional approval, after the terrorist attacks of 2001."

Del Quentin Wilber and R. Jeffrey Smith write in The Washington Post that "independent experts said it is unclear whether the ruling would have a broader effect. The case involved the Protect America Act, a surveillance law that Congress has since altered. The court also declared that its review addressed only how the law was applied in 2007, not its underlying constitutionality.

"Since then, Congress has approved new foreign intelligence surveillance legislation. It does not require, for example, that agencies have 'probable cause' to believe that the person being targeted is a foreign agent, but instead allows more wide-ranging surveillance. It also does not limit the intelligence-gathering to a 90-day period, as previously required."

On Letting Go

Sally Quinn writes in The Washington Post: "Giving up power is never easy. That's the only thing that might explain the Blair House episode.

"Yesterday President-elect Barack Obama and his family moved into Blair House, the guest house for official visitors to Washington. They had asked to move in earlier this month when they came to Washington to enroll their two daughters, Sasha and Malia, in Sidwell Friends School on Jan. 5. They were turned down because of 'previously scheduled events and guests.' . . .

"[T]he Bushes are about to relinquish the most powerful position in the country, maybe the world. And over the years, as that transition approaches -- no matter which party is in power -- there is always a last grasp, a moment when the outgoing first family tightens up on the reins of power as if to say: Not so fast. Until Jan. 20, we still call the shots.

"Different people have different ways of expressing that reluctance to let go. For the Bushes it has been Blair House."

Froomkin Watch

White House Watch will resume on Tuesday, Inauguration Day -- with a new president, and a new format. Stay tuned!

Lists Watch

Time Magazine picks Top 10 George W. Bush YouTube Moments.

Thinkprogress.org picks the top 43 worst Bush appointees.

Cartoon Watch

Stuart Carlson on Cheney in retrospect, Mike Luckovich on Cheney in retirement, Adam Zyglis on Bush's big mistake, Garry Trudeau on the exit interview, Mike Keefe, Pat Bagley, and John Darkow on Bush and bin Laden.

And parting thoughts from Ann Telnaes, Stuart Carlson, Robert Ariail, J.D. Crowe, Steve Greenberg, Clay Bennett and Matt Davies.

Post a Comment

Comments that include profanity or personal attacks or other inappropriate comments or material will be removed from the site. Additionally, entries that are unsigned or contain "signatures" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. Finally, we will take steps to block users who violate any of our posting standards, terms of use or privacy policies or any other policies governing this site. Please review the full rules governing commentaries and discussions. You are fully responsible for the content that you post.

© 2009 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive