By Ellen Goodman
I was doing fine until I saw the rocking chairs. My attacks of Bush-bashing were in remission. I told myself it was time to move on, to embrace the change you can believe in and, well, you get the idea.
So when the president—he’s still the president?—popped up on television, I would repeat what Republicans told Democrats in 2000 after the Supreme Court ruling made George W. Bush president: Get Over It. Snap Out Of It. When he made a cameo appearance to socialize another piece of the economy, I silently counted the days of his tenure, backward.
I didn’t even squeal when they unveiled the presidential portrait of the man in his Casual Friday duds. And if I started to backslide, I logged on to YouTube. There—nepotism alert!—my comedian daughter Katie posted her own toodaloo to the president, a PG-13-rated satire called “Time to Say Goodbye to George W. Bush” that raised my spirits.
But then came the moment when the senior staff of Bush enablers gave two comfy rocking chairs to the man who described himself as “an old sage at 62 ... headed to retirement.” The symbolism was too much.
Hadn’t Bush just said, “this isn’t one of the presidencies where you ride off into the sunset, you know, kind of waving goodbye”? Nevertheless, the chairs came with a video of the sunset over Crawford, Texas. It was a gift-wrapped reminder that after leaving the country a shambles, he is leaving the White House with peace of mind.
You see, what sticks in my craw is Crawford. What’s equally hard to swallow is Preston Hollow, the Dallas neighborhood where the Bushes bought a $2.1 million house that, as Jay Leno quipped, “thanks to his economic plan, he got it at a bargain.” What I can’t “snap out of” is the fact that he is preparing to write a book and design a library whose themes will undoubtedly be: “Heckuva job, George.”
The 43rd president is going home with less remorse and fewer regrets than my grandchildren express for spilling their cereal.
This is the tenor of the farewell tour being conducted across the landscape from ABC to the American Enterprise Institute. It’s the No Regrets Tour, the nonreflective “reflections by a guy who’s headed out of town.”
George W. Bush will be remembered with names such as Abu Ghraib, Gitmo and Katrina. With phrases such as “weapons of mass destruction” and “mission accomplished.” He came in with a budget surplus and leaves with a massive deficit. He blew the good will of the post-9/11 world. But being this president means never having to say you’re sorry.
Leaving office, he takes credit for seven years of safety and no debit for a day of disaster. He takes credit for the boom—“it’s hard to argue against 52 uninterrupted months of job growth”—without taking responsibility for the deregulated bust. He takes credit for the surge, not the disastrous pre-emptive war.
“The biggest regret of all the presidency has to have been the intelligence failure in Iraq,” he said. But would he have led us to war anyway? “It’s hard for me to speculate.”
No. 43 has the lowest approval ratings in modern presidential history. But he told Charlie Gibson, “I will leave the presidency with my head held high.” This is what puts me between a rocking chair and a hard place.
Bush says he doesn’t worry about short-term history. “I guess I don’t worry about long-term history, either, since I’m not going to be around to read it.” Yet on this farewell tour, he sounds like an artist scorned by the public and sure that he’ll be seen one day as Vincent van Gogh.
Well, history is a funny business. In an offhand survey of historians, 61 percent ranked Bush dead last among presidents, below even the barrel-scraping James Buchanan. Bush, of course, prefers Harry Truman, who rose from the ashes of his reputation.
But Princeton historian Sean Wilentz has a simple way of assessing presidents. “Great presidents rise to the occasion; poor presidents fall to the occasion.”
So Bush is headed to Texas with his rocking chairs and we’re headed into a new year with Barack Obama. I am reminded that January is named after the Roman god of beginnings and endings who looked forward and backward at the same time.
There are no do-overs. But there is no forgetting either. George W. Bush fell to the occasion.
Ellen Goodman’s e-mail address is ellengoodman(at)globe.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group