In the twilight of his presidency, it turns out George W. Bush cares what the American people think after all. He acknowledged in his final televised speech Thursday night that he suffered "setbacks'' and would have done some things differently, a rare admission of fallibility. He also put the best face on a record with so many familiar scars that he is leaving office with some of the lowest approval ratings of any president.
Historians, of course, will ultimately put these eight trying years in perspective. Bush is counting on more favorable treatment in the long run, similar to, say, Harry Truman. But the first drafts have not been flattering. An unnecessary war for which the country has paid a tremendous price. The disregard for civil liberties. A disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. An economic collapse rivaling the Great Depression. The list goes on and on.
There have been some bright spots. Bush invested heavily in fighting AIDS in Africa, for example, and in community health centers in impoverished areas at home. He was on the right side of the immigration debate even if he could not convince Congress. Most important, as the president pointed out Thursday night, America has not been attacked by terrorists since 9/11. For that, we should all be grateful.
At times this week, there were flashes of the qualities that made Bush an appealing candidate in 2000. He joked with reporters at his last news conference, relaxed and engaging. He conceded there were mistakes and disappointments before stubbornly defending the war in Iraq, the response to Katrina and all of the rest. The former Texas governor with a record of bipartisanship, who campaigned as a uniter with no interest in nation-building, turned out to be a far different president. He wound up defined by responses to events not even imagined in that first campaign — a possibility every president faces.
The nation endures, and one of its greatest strengths is the orderly transfer of executive power. Bush graciously called Barack Obama's presidency a "moment of hope and pride for our whole nation.'' Like most presidents, he has helped ease the way for his successor.
But there are no victory laps for the departing president, only sighs of relief as an America weary of war and rocked by economic crisis turns toward a new leader.