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In the end, though, there's a difference between self-pity and self-reflection, and it's not clear that Bush has made the distinction. True, he deserves credit for speaking so bluntly about so many of the things that went wrong during his presidency. And he is clearly working hard to understand what he might have done differently: he laid out in detail how he had reflected on whether or not he should have landed Air Force One in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and argued passionately that in retrospect, he made the right decision in not burdening local officials with his presence.
But there is no shortage of observers, some of them historians, who are willing to point out where Bush's presidency went wrong. His over-reliance on a cadre of ideological advisers who steered him in the wrong direction is often the first error cited by critics. Vice President Dick Cheney's dominance led Bush to many of the decisions he now qualifies as disappointments, as did Donald Rumsfeld's bullying leadership at the Pentagon. Bush's own ideological inclinations against regulation certainly contributed to the financial crisis. And his inexperience in foreign affairs made him unrealistic about what freedom and democracy actually mean in much of the rest of the world.
But Bush, by his own admission, is still struggling to get a handle on where he went wrong. Asked a follow-up question about why Washington had remained so partisan despite his promise eight years ago to be a "uniter, not a divider," Bush said, "I don't know," and suggested asking others. Even his reaching for the safety of history reflects a kind of myopia. In that sense, Bush's final press conference was most revealing for what it showed about his inability to accept responsibility for his presidency. The difference between Bush's mistakes and his disappointments may just be that he hasn't yet taken ownership of the latter. But the American people have no difficulty connecting the failures on Bush's watch with the President's mistakes, which is why disappointment is the word they were looking for.