The media’s fixation with confession continues. President Bush, Dana Milbank tells us, shouldn’t just express disappointment with the shortcomings of his time in office, but also admit error. Even though he held a remarkable presidential press conference, filled with the type of candor the media clamors for, the media tut-tutters still were not satisfied. It is not enough to express regret over small errors: a full-blown confession of failure is required, Milbank suggests:
When Sheryl Gay Stolberg of the New York Times asked him about pardons, he shot back: “I won’t be discussing pardons here at this press conference. Would you like to ask another question?”
Stolberg then invited him to confess his “single biggest mistake” — and Bush volunteered three little ones.
“Clearly putting a ‘Mission Accomplished’ on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” he acknowledged. And: “Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake.”
And finally: “I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the ’04 elections was a mistake,” a reference to his push to allow some Americans to invest a portion of their own Social Security funds in the stock market.
That trio of small errors, of course, only proved Bush’s view that he has gotten the big things right. After a 45-minute tour of his triumphant presidency, he departed.
All of this is a bit strange, to put it mildly. Extracting confession is not the usual treatment the media reserves for acting or former presidents (Richard Nixon being the exception which proves the rule). Nor does that seem to be something that concerns the media about the incoming President (where it might actually have relevance). It actually might be helpful in understanding the President-elect’s thought process to get an answer to:”Mr. Obama, do you regret not supporting the surge?” I’m curious to hear his response to: “Was it a mistake to promise to depart Iraq immediately?” Somehow those questions are never asked.
But more importantly, it is what it is. President Bush confessing error won’t change the facts of his presidency. Some grave “errors” and “disasters” have turned out fairly well, at least for now (e.g. Iraq); other efforts, albeit failed, may look principled in retrospect (e.g. immigration reform). The things we took for granted (e.g. no attack on American soil or interests abroad) may seem simply remarkable in the future. And the domestic legacy, especially on the economy, will depend in large part on his successor’s ability to prevent a recession from becoming a full-fledged depression — or a return to 1970s stagflation. But none of it depends, as the media’s desperation seems to imply, on a public confession. This is not (at least not yet) a country that conducts show trials or expects past leaders to publicly humiliate themselves.
The real take-away from this encounter is a contrast in personal grace and stature between the media — ever snide and, frankly, mean-spirited — and a president unwilling to seize on self-pity or criticize either the media inquisitors or his political opponents. As this report explains:
But Bush, seemingly freed to speak his mind as his tenure draws to a close, offered a bit more nuance and soul-searching than he usually does in such settings, pounding the lectern for emphasis at certain points and bantering with some of the reporters with whom he has sparred.
. . .
Far from seeming depressed about his coming loss of power, Bush seemed largely in good spirits. He opened the news conference by expressing appreciation for the media, even while he said that he did not like all the stories about him and thought, borrowing one of his famous malapropisms, that the press corps “sometimes misunderestimated me.”
At another point, Bush pursed his lips and mocked the suggestion that the burdens of office are too great. “It’s kind of like, why me? Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch? It’s just — it’s pathetic, isn’t it, self-pity?” Bush said.
Opinion is sharply divided on the Bush presidency, and many of us don’t yet have a firm grasp on how large the failures will loom and how significant the accomplishments may seem in hindsight. But if there were ever a more graceful exit by a president — both in the tone of his interviews and the magnanimous and robust cooperation with his successor (who excoriated him during the campaign in the most personal terms) — I can’t recall it. That too will be part of the legacy.