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The Exit Speech: Bush Let Himself Down As Prez

I felt very sorry for him at the end [of the speech]. He reminded me of the Japanese admiral whose carrier sank at Midway in the movie I Bombed Pearl Harbor. He's just standing at the helm, stony-faced, while the water rises over his nose.

So says a close conservative friend, somebody who's always been a lover and defender of George W. Bush in sickness and in health. I felt the same way, except maybe for the "feeling sorry" part. It's not that Bush looked physically uncomfortable: that shadow of a smirk, so cringe-worthy at tragic moments, is his permanent expression. (Bush's face always has the look of a child caught doing something trivial he knows is naughty, but that he thinks is really funny anyway, like switching the salt with the sugar in the table shakers.) It's that the "guiding principles that should shape our course" that he laid out had so fragile a connection to the actual shape of his presidency, the way the I Bombed Pearl Harbor admiral's affect weirdly belies the reality rising up around him.

Unlike Mike, I didn't think the language itself was the bad part. Perhaps I'm a sucker for this stuff, but I liked the Thomas Jefferson line -- “I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past" -- and the way Bush insisted that nourishing democracy in some way or another remains a "practical," not just a naive or idealistic, concern for us. "If America does not lead the cause of freedom, that cause will not be led": It's an echo, although a less eloquent one, of Lincoln's "last, best hope of earth." 

No, the bad part was the disconnect between his ideals and what he did. Democracy-building was the biggest focus of Bush's speech, but there was no awareness of the extent to which the administration failed at or simply abandoned that program. Remember that wave of democratic revolutions that was supposed to be the lasting legacy of the Bush administration  -- the Cedar Revolution, the Rose Revolution, the Orange Revolution, and so forth? None of these uprisings stuck in the way Bush had hoped for, and in Georgia -- the case I know the best -- the administration pretty much just gave up on trying to do much for the country. And if it's so uncompromisingly important that "this Nation must ... always be willing to act" in the defense of justice and freedom, what about Egypt, or what about Bush's cuddly relationship with Putin? He gave two examples of his administration's commitment to his ideals of promoting freedom: "standing with dissidents" and providing medicine for AIDS and malaria. Pretty weak. Iraq is a tenuous example at best.

Did America's sense of "moral clarity" get clearer during the Bush years? I couldn't say so. Did the idea of democracy-building, or, as Bush puts it, the idea that "in the 21st century, security and prosperity at home depend on the expansion of liberty abroad," grow in prestige during the Bush years? Just the opposite. I guess maybeI do feel sorry for him. Without passing judgment on whether his vision of a successful presidency is the right one, Bush failed within his own rubric.

"He's not very reflective," that same conservative friend of mine also said, mournfully. Maybe ignorance is bliss here.

--Eve Fairbanks