Presidential addresses always begin with what I think of as frosting. A bunch of inconsequential fluff, shout outs, and thanks. Bush's farewell address last night was no different. It was three paragraphs of "a final opportunity to share some thoughts," "best wishes to President-Elect Obama," and "I am filled with gratitude" came before we got through the vanilla cream flowers and our fork hit cake. And the flavor of the cake the president served last night was "OHMYFREAKIN'GOD!"
Bush went straight to 9/11 -- which should, in any sane world, be seen as his worst failure. The response to Hurricane Katrina would be a close second, but 9/11 would have to be the crowning screw up of his presidential career. Make that domestic screw up. The prize for foreign policy screw up goes to Iraq.
This evening, my thoughts return to the first night I addressed you from this house -- September the 11th, 2001. That morning, terrorists took nearly 3,000 lives in the worst attack on America since Pearl Harbor. I remember standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center three days later, surrounded by rescuers who had been working around the clock. I remember talking to brave souls who charged through smoke-filled corridors at the Pentagon, and to husbands and wives whose loved ones became heroes aboard Flight 93. I remember Arlene Howard, who gave me her fallen son's police shield as a reminder of all that was lost. And I still carry his badge.
As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.
I'm not much of a historian, but off the top of my head, I can't remember a farewell address that reads so much like a defense of the speechgiver's presidency. With polling showing the occupation of Iraq as less popular than measles, Bush actually decided that now would be a good time to brag about it. "Iraq has gone from a brutal dictatorship and a sworn enemy of America to an Arab democracy at the heart of the Middle East and a friend of the United States," he said. He wasn't entirely stupid, however; this was the only mention of the event the largest percentage of Americans believe he'll be remembered for. One sentence for the biggest foreign policy blunder in American history.
But then, this was Bush's last big chance to rehab his place in history. He wasn't going to dwell on the arguments he's lost to the public. Better to get into territory where the debate still has some spark of life. In speaking -- indirectly, of course -- about warrantless wiretapping, torture, the invasion of Iraq, Guantanamo Bay, and other constitutional abuses, Bush repeated his often repeated lie. "There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results," he said. "America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
That is, only if you don't count the terrorist attacks that happened since 9/11. The Beltway Snipers and the anthrax mailings happened in there. The only reason these two post-9/11 terrorist attacks aren't counted as terrorist attacks is because that would spoil Bush's supposed "perfect record" after the worst terrorist attack in American history. It's like bragging that you rolled a perfect game -- so long as you don't count all the gutterballs.
It's always been especially galling to me that Bush waves 9/11 around like a trophy. It marks his greatest failure as a president. The only real success Bush has ever enjoyed was in getting people to see his very worst moment as his very best. Pretty much the moment the attacks happened, Bush climbed onto Air Force One and flew off -- after famously freezing up in a school classroom. Bush remembers "standing in the rubble of the World Trade Center three days later" because it was three days before he came back. For three days, the nation was leaderless. Since then, it's been rudderless.
I could go through this speech point by point and shoot down almost all of it, but that would be an extremely long post. "Every taxpayer pays lower income taxes" is one example. Nearly every taxpayer has a lower income. "Funding for our veterans has nearly doubled" is another. Actually, funding per veteran is down. The only reason Bush can make this claim is because his wars have created so many new vets. And nearly doubled since when?
It's fitting that Bush's last address to the nation is as big a load as every other address he's made. It's also fitting that it's as self-serving. George W. Bush has always been all about George W. Bush. For President George, all the world's a stage and all the men and women other than him are merely the audience. Bush's presidency has been eight years of "look at me!" It's never been about you or me.
So it makes sense that Bush's last address would be all about George. As big a hypocrite as ever ("As we address these challenges -- and others we cannot foresee tonight -- America must maintain our moral clarity."), Bush urges everyone to be just like him in his ideology -- despite the fact that his ideology has just been rejected by voters.
I'm so glad it's finally over. Bush, like every outgoing president seems to, believes he still has some part to play in American life. But his headline days are over, other than celebrity sightings on Entertainment Tonight and the seemingly unknowable odds that he'll earn headlines with his trial. He's got a think tank in the works, but I doubt it'll prove influential. Tack "Bush loyalist" in front of anyone's name and they'll be laughed off any venue other than talk radio and FOX.
That's it George. Time's up. You had your time and you failed. The economy is in the tank, we're stuck in a completely pointless war, we've lost thousands of lives and taken tens of thousands more, a major American city is still being rebuilt, the World Trade Center towers are gone, our reputation in the world is ruined, we've become a nation of paranoiacs who torture and eavesdrop and intercept emails, and the name George W. Bush has become synonymous with "sucks."
It's over, go back to that country mansion you laughably call a "ranch." That brush isn't going to clear itself.