In the current Administration's waning days, Americans have struggled to find a single word that would encapsulate history's judgment on the two-term presidency of George W. Bush. The left has offered disastrous, citing the damage they see inflicted on the country by Bush's foreign policy and economic stewardship. The right has countered with secure, arguing that another 9/11 was prevented by Bush's taking the fight to terrorists at home and abroad. But in what the White House says will be his final press conference on Monday, President Bush himself provided the word everyone has been looking for: disappointment.
The President used the word in one sense or another more than a dozen times in the course of his parting exchange with the White House media corps. But it was the quality, rather than the quantity, of its use that was most telling. The more he uttered disappointment, the more fraught it sounded, until it was delivered not just with his signature shoulder-hunching emphasis but with a kind of protestation that seemed to carry the full weight of his historic fall from nearly 90% approval ratings after 9/11 to his current tally of less than 30%, a record low. (Read "The Bush Presidency, Eight Years Later.")
Bush was asked yet again if he thought he had made any mistakes. As he has done since John Dickerson first asked him that question four years ago, the President ran for the safety of history. "There is no such thing as short-term history," he said, and he laid out his familiar assertion that his presidency will look different to historians than it does in its current historically unpopular state.
Bush then broke with his own tradition and weighed in on some mistakes. The "Mission Accomplished" banner brandished during his aircraft-carrier appearance two months after the invasion of Iraq gave the wrong impression about his and his Administration's assessment of progress in the war, he said. He then referred obliquely to mistakes in some of his own "rhetoric"; Bush has said that his vow to catch Osama bin Laden "dead or alive" and his challenge to America's adversaries to "bring 'em on," among other cavalier comments, were unhelpful, and that is presumably what he was hinting at here.
But Bush quickly moved on to things he wasn't sure he would count as mistakes; instead, he labeled them "disappointments." Among things Bush found disappointing: the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, the failed response to Hurricane Katrina and the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq after all. As the press conference continued, Bush kept coming back to the word. On the political environment in the capital, he said, "I am disappointed by the tone in Washington, D.C." He even predicted that Barack Obama will on occasion feel the same way. "There'll be disappointments, I promise you," he said. "He'll be disappointed. Sometimes the biggest disappointments will come from your so-called friends."
Even during the press conference, Bush appeared to recognize that he was overusing the word. While looking back at parts of his presidency that had fallen short, the President asserted that he wasn't feeling sorry for himself, and that to do so would be unseemly. He raised the most recent crisis to hit the country the economic crisis and said he scorned the idea of the "burden of office." "Why'd the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?" he mocked. "It's just pathetic, isn't it, self-pity?" (Read "Bush's Last Days: The Lamest Duck.")