It's one of the most embarrassing moments from Bush's presidency. At a press conference in 2004, he was asked to name his biggest mistake since 9/11. For President Clueless, this was a stumper.
"I wish you'd have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it..." Bush said, hemming and hawing. "I'm sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with answer, but it hadn't yet."
He went on to name some things he didn't consider mistakes, then realized that he was drifting. "I don't want to sound like I have made no mistakes. I'm confident I have. I just haven't... you just put me under the spot here, and maybe I'm not as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one," he said, leaving the question unanswered. It's ironic that standing in front of the cameras trying to figure out the least embarrassing answer was a mistake in itself. Politicians field these questions all the time -- the trick isn't to not answer, but to deliver a non-answer. There's a difference.
"No one scores 100% in this office and I'm sure you'd be able to find many of my critics who can answer that question better than I," a smarter Bush might've said. "But we need to look forward, not backward. Americans aren't interested in navel gazing, they're interested in solutions. Next question please..." Instead, Bush spent a long time trying to find a convincing, but unembarrassing answer -- there wasn't one.
It took him over four years, but Bush has finally come up with an answer to that question. These things need to percolate a while. In fact, when asked about regrets by CNN's Heidi Collins, Bush came up with three.
Bush: I regret saying some things I shouldn't have said.
Bush: Like "dead or alive," or "bring 'em on." And, by the way, my wife reminded me as president of the United States, you better be careful what you say. I was trying to convey a message. I could have conveyed it more artfully. Being on this ship reminds me of when I went to the USS Abraham Lincoln and they had a sign that said "Mission Accomplished." I regret that sign was there. It was a sign aimed at the sailors on the ship, but it conveyed a broader knowledge. To some it said, well, Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over, when I didn't think that. But nonetheless, it conveyed the wrong message. So, there are things I've regretted...
Yeah, those were pretty bad. Especially standing in front of a big banner reading "Mission Accomplished," while telling everyone that "Major combat operations in Iraq have ended. In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." You can really see how people might've gotten the idea that he thought the war was over. Of course, the banner was just a PR problem, an embarrassing photo. The real problem was that he said the war was over. That's why everyone got the idea that was what he meant. It wasn't the banner.
"In this battle, we have fought for the cause of liberty, and for the peace of the world. Our nation and our coalition are proud of this accomplishment -- yet, it is you, the members of the United States military, who achieved it," Bush said. "Your courage, your willingness to face danger for your country and for each other, made this day possible. Because of you, our nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free."
See that's Bush's biggest mistake -- or, at least, representative of it -- he was never, ever straight with the American people. Bush pretended to make "the tough decisions," all the while following the path of least resistance and the lowest road, like water running downhill. When the truth would've made him look pretty bad -- which was about 90% of the time -- we didn't get the truth. Even that mistake question in 2004 was met with evasion. Bush knew his mistakes then, but he didn't think you should.
So we wound up with a White House fueled by propaganda and coverup. It happened after 9/11, when it eventually came out that he ignored a daily briefing entitles "Bin Laden Determined to Strike Within the US." It happened after Hurricane Katrina, when it quickly became clear that Brownie hadn't done a heckuva job. It happened in the Gonzales investigation, the Valerie Plame scandal, the FISA scandal, after Dick Cheney shot some poor guy in the face, torture, corruption, on and on and on.
Bush and Cheney treated the White House as a hiding place and every move they made was treated like a state secret. The idea of "executive privilege" was stretched to absurdity. Secret emails, secret memos, secret conversations, secret wiretaps, secret prisons with secret prisoners, etc. Transparency was apparently a dirty word for this White House. If you needed to know it, they'd hold a press conference. Otherwise, you can shut the hell up and stop asking questions. What, do you think this is some sort of democracy or something?
It may have taken four years for George W. Bush to come up with mistakes he regrets and his choices tells us a lot about his philosophy of governance. Each one was a public relations gaffe, a problem of bad messaging. They were things that made him look bad, not things that had damaged the nation or had taken people's lives. Bush's mistakes were mistakes that made problems for Bush, not you. You he could care less about.
Never before has two months seemed so long. Goodbye George, we won't miss you.