“Nothing became him so much in the Presidency as … well, nothing, really.”
I’ve just passed an hour or so watching George W. Bush giving his last press conference, a performance that leaves me almost as lost for words as the man himself. It was a strange, sad spectacle of maundering passages illuminated by the 10 watt glow of elusive lucidity; a ramble through an era bereft of sense, principle and that high grandeur associated with the office of President of The United States of America.
George began by looking around the assembled family and reciting the names of some of the illustrious White House Press Corps, nodding and smiling as among friends, but eerily reminiscent of a nine year-old struggling to remember aunts and uncles on Christmas Day. It didn’t help that he got the name of one two-term veteran wrong, and covered the error with,
“Suzanne! What’s it been now? Six years?”
Only then to recall that, indeed, ‘twas eight.
He was trying, yet again, that disarming Texan charm. Smiling, folksy, and no more successful now than in any of his previous forty-six White House Press Conferences. In an early moment, looking to get some levity in to lighten a dire proceedings he tried to deadpan one of his more famous manglings of the English language, reminding the WHPC how they had “misunderestimated me.” But he flubbed the line and was left grinning quite alone. As his whispery chuckle wheezed into silence you could almost hear the cicadas and watch the lone tumbleweed roll past the lectern. When he later described the Texas legislature as “risk-adverse” no-one groaned or stifled a snort. This is the White House Press corps, smart, savvy, sharp as razors, and completely over this grey ghost of presidents past.
His attempts to be jokey and pally grew less frequent, and his ability to connect, flawed at best in this congregation, gasped its last breath before he was half done. Never the essence of effervescence, this was a man entirely free of spit, spin or sparkle. He promised to answer all their questions, but they knew he couldn’t, and they seemed unwilling to flog the old horse through its paces again, eschewing the old spirit of Bush-baiting, bored entirely with the same tired sallies, parries and ripostes. The questions were formulaic, their interest in him long since dried up and blown away.
And so he was left to wander, to stagger in a clutter of aimless syllables from occasional thought to odd remembered fact like a drunk lurching from barstool to barstool in search of the door. He clung to a few familiar props along the way; that historians, many years from now would best assess his two terms; that he had “disappointments” rather than mistakes to recall. But here was a man who clearly did not understand government despite a long and tarnished career. A man who confused action with remedy, ideology with ideas, politics with purpose.
He was not a man who listened much to criticism, he said, and did not feel that he had been damaged or swayed by it. But he was “disappointed” by Washington’s caustic tone and tenor (my words obviously).Perhaps he had forgotten the rancid bile of brutish, partisan hate-mongers, the spite and spleen of the Republican pack-jackals of the Clinton years; their savage blood-lust over the pants-down, tackle-happy dangle-fest of Bill and Monica (and Ted and Malice). Of such is a culture, a climate made.
Abu Ghraib became a “disappointment” too, rather than an atrocity, or the moment when the mask slipped and the true nature of America’s war was exposed – brutal, cruel, arrogant and vicious, glorying in terror and the humiliation of its enemies while obfuscating responsibility for its excesses. These are the process values of Bush, Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld and, in particular, Dick Cheney - a man so myopic, hate-filled and violent he took time out to shoot his lawyer in the face.
The lack of WMDs was another “disappointment”, rather than an appalling error of process, intelligence and judgment resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands. There was no self-awareness here, no willingness to reflect on the most ill-advised and disastrous war since Vietnam; squandering lives, a nation's lifeblood and the treasure and moral stature of the USA. For Bush the monstrous consequences of his folly are an irrelevance. What matters is his disappointment when reality refuses to conform to Presidential fantasy. What matters to George, as he blandly explained, is his ability to look at himself in the mirror each day and be proud of what he sees. Which feat of blind narcissism he is more than capable of.
New Orleans bound
The complete and ongoing failure of his administration to deal adequately with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina evokes the D-word yet again. He can argue the micro-detail of how many were rescued from rooftops by helicopters, but the larger picture is still a mystery to George. He can spend billions on the Iraq War, and even fund the reconstruction of Iraqi towns and villages, but when it comes to New Orleans he’s Mister Small-Government once again. Pinch the pennies and preach individual effort and boot-strap recovery, and the ship of state will right itself and move on, apparently.
And it’s true, as he reminded all still awake, that his two terms began during a recession and is ending in one,. But George draws no conclusions from this about his own fallibility, culpability or inability to respond by changing his thinking. George was always a mouthpiece for his advisors, unable to challenge their intellectual dominance he chose always to act, without critique or rebuttal, and be the doer as well as the decider.
..and so often there also fell George. Not so much a President as the Resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. To know what the Prez thought about any issue all you had to do was check his appointment book and see who was the last person to talk to him.
The daily National Security Briefings “every day except Sunday” maintained a mesmerizing hold on the President’s brain and glued his attention to the war almost to the exclusion of anything else (except tax cuts).That, plus the neo-con armchair cavalry clique around Wolfowitz and Cheney kept him so blinkered to all but military success or failure that his confidence and consequent capacity to act was largely determined by the daily battle damage reports.
Bin Laden et al will have noticed this you can be sure, for every RPG or suicide bomb lit up GWB’s barometer. A man that rattled is at the mercy of those who can rattle the cage some more. In effect every cheap thug with a pound of Semtex could determine the President’s policy. Which is no way to run a war, or a superpower.
As George worked his way around the room, name by face by name, it occurred to me that Obama will be my tenth President. I’m old enough to remember JFK. It’s strange to think I’ve seen the all-time worst. George plodded on, the questions anodyne, the answers rambling asinine. Time passed. Nothing happened. Gitmo, Abu Ghraib, New Orleans and Katrina, Axis of Evil, Iraq, WMD, Kyoto, three failed Free Trade Agreements scuppered in the Senate, Sub-Prime, Ferdie and Fannie, The GFC, Bailouts and ballyhoo, it’s been a long, glorious thrill ride.
The questions ceased; George finished. He walked off stage left, successfully negotiated the door and was last seen walking up the stairs. In silence. Applause barely flickered. The White House Press Corps has moved on and is already too busy with the new guy, Mister History. Not with George. He’s just history.