It was the tetlevision appearance of George W. Bush—proud, stubborn, defiant, pushy—coming so soon after Obama’s Sunday interview on 60 Minutes—proud, stubborn, defiant, pushy, a tad dejected—that was so confusing. The defensiveness, the sense the events were outside one’s control, the world’s most powerful man discovering that he couldn’t get everything he wanted … once you’re elected president, it seems, admitting big mistakes is impossible. It’s the ego required for that office, or the ego that it ultimately creates; either way, the Oval Office is clearly an incubator for a certain kind of prickliness and tinny self-deprecation. At one point, Bush told Matt Lauer he shouldn’t have spoken under the “Mission Accomplished” banner (his suggested alternative: “Good going men and women: Great mission”) but would have made the same decision to invade Iraq.
Bush and Lauer spoke about the great policy debates of the Dubya era: torture (“damn right” he approved waterboarding, which was legal because his lawyers said so), Saddam, (he was “sickened” when no weapons of mass destruction were found), 9/11 (he didn’t have the intel to prevent the attacks), Katrina (he’s not racist, and Kanye hurt his feelings), and the financial crisis of late 2008 (it came out of nowhere). It felt like a journey into a tightly-sealed historical bubble. Part of the reason that President Obama has had so much trouble pinning blame on Bush is it’s hard to get today’s voters fired up about yesterday’s president, especially his neglect of, say, mortgage underwriting standards.
The gloss, the sense that his legacy was calcifying in the amber of history where he couldn’t get slagged anymore, where only cranks would be allowed to get outraged at what he did—this is what President George W. Bush seems to want: Pressed as a war president and defending hard choices. One single interview, even with Matt Lauer, interview ninja, was never going to be able to bring Bush to task for leaving America in such worse shape than he found it. Too boring, too subtle, too technocratic!
The man who was once Fox News’ anointed President, even before the network becomes a holding pen for GOP nominees in waiting, did his first interview with Matt Lauer for a reason. (Interviews with Rush, Oprah and all three Fox News hosts will soon follow.) And it was a reminder of Bush’s ability to avoid the fringe: his praise for Islam, empathy with Hispanics during immigration reform, his personal commitment to a cross-racial kind of easy-going, good ole boy politics. He may have been as partisan as they came, but the fights over mosques and border fences offer a reminder that George W. Bush wanted everyone, or at least conservatives, to get along and expand their horizons.
Oh well. Anyone for tea?
[An earlier version of this post has been edited]