It’s easy to take shots at George W. Bush and it’s pointless to wish that he’d perform some public act of contrition for his presidency, or merely offer a simple acknowledgement that he screwed up.
Still, there was an infuriating quality his speech to a "Welcome Home" rally in Midland on Tuesday afternoon.
Hours before, Bush had performed his last official duty as president: attending the installation of his successor. Sitting on the dais only a few feet from Barack Obama, he had an unobstructed view of a national Mall populated by nearly two million citizens, a staggering number, and one that easily dwarfs the excitement generated by any speech Bush ever gave.
When Obama, as custom dictates, offered thanks to Bush for his service, the throng was painfully quiet – muted applause mixed with open boos and taunts. When the ceremony was over and the helicopter charged with carrying Bush from Washington for good had lifted off the ground, the masses looked up and waved in a manner that said "good riddance," not "farewell."
You’d think an experience like this might prompt some introspection on the flight back to Texas: How did it end up like this? Why was my departure greeted like a national holiday? Where did it go wrong?
You’d think similar thoughts might have crossed Bush’s mind during Obama’s inaugural address itself. Whether intentional or not, the speech offered a brutal indictment not so much of Bush’s policies but of the intellectual bankruptcy and false simplicity behind them.
For eight years, Bush treated every economic question he faced as a choice between the free market and socialism; and he always sided with the market, because that was the American way, dummy – it’s what Ronald Reagan would have done. End of discussion. (Well, this was his posture until the economy collapsed, thanks in no small part to years of lax regulation.)
In two sentences on Tuesday, Obama claimed the vast middle ground that Bush ignored for two terms. The question, he said as Bush listened, isn’t "whether the market is a force for good or ill. Its power to generate wealth and expand freedom is unmatched, but this crisis has reminded us that without a watchful eye, the market can spin out of control – and that a nation cannot prosper long when it favors only the prosperous."
For more than seven years, Bush framed every national security question – whether it involved wiretaps, due process or outright torture – as a choice between fighting terrorism and "evil-doers" or showing weakness and coddling them. And what a surprise, he always sided with safety, America’s prestige (to say nothing of the civil liberties of its citizens) be damned. He told himself and his countrymen that he was showing resolve – just like Churchill and Reagan!
Here again, Obama claimed the middle ground that Bush neglected: "We reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals."
Bush was never the oblivious idiot many of his enemies took him for. He has a quick mind and obvious intellectual capacity. His presidency didn’t fail because of a low I.Q. It failed because he took pride in refusing to activate his intellect; refusing to explore the nuances of complex issues, refusing to learn the cautionary lessons of history before sending hundreds of thousands of Americans to fight in Iraq. He played from the gut, he liked to say, as if a well-honed intellect wouldn’t strengthen his instincts.
Who knows – maybe doubt actually did haunt Bush as he made his way back to Texas on Tuesday. If it did, though, it was short-lived, as the hometown crowd exonerated him. As Bush spoke to the Midland rally, you could see his confidence lifting as he fed off the friendly crowd, which abetted every one of his rationalizations with cheers.
"Character and confidence are as sturdy as our oaks," he declared. "History will be the judge of our decisions, but when I walked out of the Oval Office this morning, I left with the same values that I took to Washington eight years ago. And when I get home tonight to look in the mirror, I’m not going to regret what I see."
Like his presidency, it was immediately clear, Bush’s post-presidency will be defined by an aversion to self-examination. Those two million people who packed the Mall in Washington? A bunch of radical liberals. Obama’s eloquent inaugural? Just a bunch of fancy speechifying from an Ivy League elitist. None of it meant anything. But that room full of Texans? Now there’s some real Americans.