Thursday, January 15, 2009

Bush's Farewell Address -- More Fair than Well

I didn't quite know what to expect from President Bush's farewell address -- would it be the normal marketing message espousing his world-view one last time? Or would he change it up, throw us a curve ball, and do what Al Gore did as he accepted defeat from the recount in 2000 -- become magnanimous, strong, and truly embody the behaviors of a leader?

This question was answered mighty quick. Unfortunately for him, and for us, it was the former. And, possibly, even worse.

I found the address to be primarily a set of thinly-veiled non-apologies for things that he must feel the need to apologize for, but can't, intermingled with crusty platitudes that could only make the most blindly patriotic citizen choke up. In addition, I was struck by a few unnecessarily provocative statements:

"Freedom is the universal gift of almighty G-d, and that liberty and justice lead to peace. Advancing this belief is the only practical way to protect our citizens."
This is simply an unnecessary conflation of human rights, American values, and religious values. Yes, Mr. Bush, we know that America's values and constitution were inspired by the Christian values of those Brits who couldn't stand the Christian values as they were implemented in their homeland at the time. But this very story of what brought the founders to America in the first place indicates that G-d seems to spread "His gift of liberty and justice" a bit unevenly. Best to adhere to the founders' own judgment -- let the values stand on their own. Doing so gives them a universality that conflating with Western religions can only limit. Bush's inability to see this is just that -- an inability.

"When people live in freedom, they do not willingly choose leaders who willingly pursue campaigns of terror."
Depending on your perspective, you could find this either infuriating or simply false. Ardent Bush-haters will certainly find tragic irony, seeing Bush himself as one of these leaders who induced terror within his own populace, not to mention how some in Iraq might feel about him. And then there's the the little story of Adolph Hitler, who was democratically chosen to lead the Germans. This overarching neo-con philosophy now rings so hollow that it makes the man saying it look hollow.

"The addicted and suffering are finding new hope through faith-based programs."
Not surprising he'd be strutting his stuff in expanding government programs, but this is the stuff that simultaneously petrifies the secular left and divides the fiscal and social conservatives. How unite-y.
(Oh, and he stumbled on "faith-based" in such a way that I thought he was going to say Facebook! Now that would have been a curveball.)

"A new Medicare prescription drug benefit is bringing peace of mind to seniors and the disabled."
This is a wonderful example of how the Bush administration was so fantastic at the packaging and so destructive in the details. Yes, this certainly sounds like compassionate conservatism, but the details of this program included no negotiating drug discounts from pharmaceutical companies to keep the costs of this plan down for tax payers. So, all compassion, no conservatism? Mostly. The compassion was divided between seniors (large voting bloc) and Big Pharma profits (who struck gold with a huge contract with no bulk discounts). Another eye-roller for true-blue conservatives and deficit hawks.

"Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks. There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
This was the most fascinating part of his address. If you really look at this statement, you can see the psychology of George W. Bush. He cares deeply what people (including the media, and his detractors) think of him. He cares deeply because he uses the prodding of his detractors to frame up why he ignored them. And, most astonishingly, he gives himself an excuse for making mistakes that he admits he can't admit. On face value, he is saying "I would be sorry for the blunders you and I think I made, but I can't be sorry -- and you can't blame me -- because I did my best." He wants an A for effort, even though he, in the eyes of the public, has failed (a 34% exit approval rating I think rates as failure).

"Our enemies are patient and determined to strike again. America did nothing to seek or deserve this conflict."
This is a stunning statement. It's as if he sees America's history starting the day he took office. I'm not saying we deserved 9/11 (far from it), but it's quite a different thing to state that we've done absolutely nothing that could have instigate terrorist threats. It remains astonishing how simply he appears to see the world, even to this very day. I won't go into great detail, but let me just lay out a few examples top-of-mind of what America has done in the past that might have helped -- even unintentionally -- instigate foreign fury: America supported Osama Bin Laden in the Afghanistan war against the Soviets. America provided support to Saddam Hussein in his war against Iran. America provides money and political support to Arab leaders who oppress their people in exchange for easy access to oil. America's unflinching support for Israel, despite their at-times-questionable approach to peace in the Middle East. America's historic ambivalence toward human rights and development in the Middle East, and turning our backs when leaders in the region use the poor cultural environment as an excuse to blame America for all their troubles. As I said, these are just the top-of-mind situations that could have built up to explain why there is an Al Q'aida in the first place.

I am actually disappointed that Bush did not wow us with a surprising twist with his farewell address. I do think he has it in him to pull such a trick. But I suppose the decision was made that he should go out the way he came in -- using controversy, and a belief in a two-dimensional moral code, as his core leadership tools.

So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen... goodbye.


Great post, just a few comments:

"And then there's the the little story of Adolph Hitler, who was democratically chosen to lead the Germans."

This is not quite true. Hitler himself was appointed chancellor by Hindenburg after the old and frail president's arm was twisted. In the process the Reichstag was dissolved and elections were scheduled repeatedly, then the Nazi Party intimidated everybody else (see also Reichstag Fire). So, it might have had the appearance of being democratic, but it certainly was not in a way Americans view democracy.

Bush said: "You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."

Note how crafty this is: he doesn't openly admit to making bad decisions, only that they were tough and that he was willing to make them. Tough don't make them right...

Good point re: the nuances of Hitler's appointment. However, the Reichstag Fire to me seems scaringly similar to 9/11 -- in terms of our Hitler's leadership used that event to instill fear in the populace, and use humanity's worst instincts of blame and retribution as the approach to solve the problem as Hitler defined it.

The more I learn about Hitler's rise and Germany's fall, the more I see the potential in any society, should the right social and economic situations exist on the ground, combined with a highly talented negative leader.

America's clock-work scheduled renewal of Presidents (and congressmen) does create a tripwire for such unfortunate possibilities to manifest themselves too deeply. But no system can be perfect, and no system can stop highly talented leaders -- negative or positive.