The verdict on Bush

As he leaves office, the president once again fails to take responsibility

In his “ultimate exit interview,” as George W. Bush called his final news conference Monday (Jan. 12), the president insisted that only history could be his judge, that it was too soon to assess his presidency. He then proceeded to use his highly selective memory to offer a laudatory self-assessment and minimize his mistakes.

Harking back to earlier concessions, he again acknowledged that appearing before a “Mission Accomplished” banner was a mistake, as was his use of cowboy rhetoric at times. And he gave himself ample credit for the surge in Iraq, as if that was the only significant aspect of a long and gruesome conflict that has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths, upset the balance of power in the Middle East in Iran’s favor, damaged America’s moral standing in the world and cost taxpayers a trillion dollars or more.

He made no mention of the false pretense under which the war was begun, the failures of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the shredding of the Constitution, or his embrace of torture and rendition. Abu Ghraib, he said, was “a disappointment.”

A disappointment? He makes it sound as if he were just an innocent bystander. Where is his sense of responsibility?

Nowhere was Bush’s selectivity more evident than in his insistence that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina had been unfairly criticized. Taking credit for lifting some 30,000 people off roofs, he completely ignored reports from House Republicans and his own White House that determined the response was botched.

Nor would Bush take responsibility for the wrecked economy. He inherited a recession when he took office and was leaving in a recession, he said. In between he had 52 months of continuous job growth. What he didn’t mention was that much of this growth resulted from the very housing bubble that his administration, with its free-market ideology, ignored and that eventually brought down the economy.

History is not going to judge President Bush any more kindly than his fellow Americans are now judging him. He has left far too many disasters in his wake. Indeed, as more than one commentator has noted, historians may eventually decide that his greatest accomplishment was creating such a hunger for his opposite, and for a return to pre-Bush American values, that he inadvertently paved the way for the election of the first African-American president in U.S. history.