Was it something he said?

It was nothing President George W. Bush did — no decision he made, no policy he pursued, no faith that he placed in ideological dogma on topics that range from regulating industries to acknowledging global climate change to responding to the terrorist threat — that he finds regrettable. Bush told a cable network, “I regret saying some things I shouldn’t have said” over the course of eight tumultuous years

Like when he said he would get Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” Or when he seemed to taunt the insurgents who were emerging in Iraq, by saying “bring ’em on.” Or when he went aboard the USS Lincoln less than two months after he launched the Iraq invasion and spoke beneath a banner that read “Mission Accomplished.”

“I regret that … that sign was there,” the president said in his first interview since last week’s election.

And that, my fellow Americans, is that.

Many of us have become numb to the obvious disconnect between the current president and the havoc that has characterized his tenure. Even so, Bush’s departing interview with CNN is jarring. It is an appalling reminder of how and why the nation finds itself at such a low point.

Correspondent Heidi Collins spoke to Bush during his Veterans Day visit to New York. Her approach was gentle — making the president’s response all the more provocative. Here is what Collins asked: “I imagine that you probably have a moment in your presidency that you are most proud of, and a moment I’m sure you most regret.” Bush then recounted his regrettable moments. They amount to a collection of sound bites that now cause him to wince.

Bush is famously averse to self-reflection. And no one really expects an outgoing president to recite an unedited catalog of his flaws. But it is telling that he couldn’t even offer a dose of political bromide for a hurting country, something along the lines of: “I regret that so many Americans are facing financial hardship as the holiday season approaches.” What would have been wrong with that?

The unabridged compendium of regrettable actions Bush has taken since his inauguration on Jan. 20, 2001, far exceeds the length of this column. You can start with the initial round of tax cuts, which were tilted toward the wealthy. They caused a then-emerging budget surplus to evaporate and were prologue to a set of economic policies that helped lead us into the current global meltdown.

It is also regrettable that Bush effectively ignored this warning, delivered to him while he vacationed at his Texas ranch on Aug. 6, 2001: “Bin Laden Determined To Strike in U.S.”

I regret that after the terrorist attacks on New York City and the Pentagon, Bush began to secretly plot the invasion of Iraq, though there wasn’t a shred of evidence that Saddam Hussein was involved in the 9/11 conspiracy. And after Bush ousted the Taliban from Afghanistan, his administration neglected the country where the terrorists had a haven, so that it has devolved once again into corruption, a flourishing drug trade and violent, regional factionalism.

How to continue? Torture. Secret prisons. The president claiming that he has the power to seize even American citizens off the streets, and imprison them indefinitely. The “signing statements” that Bush attached to legislation he approved — asserting that he simply won’t follow parts of a law that he doesn’t like. The Guantanamo prison camp.

Common decency requires the president to regret his failure to heed warnings that Hurricane Katrina would carry a catastrophic force, and to take action. Most Americans regret that the president didn’t rescue New Orleans.

Who can name all the government agencies whose missions Bush subverted by appointing a cabal of industry insiders to regulate the businesses that once employed them, or count the ideological warriors and incompetents he chose to run so many of the rest?

We’ve always known that Bush is resistant to analysis, or even to considering the complexity of an issue. In 2004, a voter at the town hall debate of his re-election campaign asked this: “President Bush, during the last four years, you have made thousands of decisions that have affected millions of lives. Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it.” Bush acknowledged no error except a few bad appointments.

The president hasn’t changed. Thankfully, the nation has.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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