Monday, December 01, 2008

EXIT INTERVIEW. A digest of President Bush's interview with ABC News has been posted. I can't bear to watch the interview itself, but I found the excerpts fascinating.

Bush has been practically invisible lately. His highest public profile since the last State of the Union address came during his senior-week antics at the Olympic Games. There have been reports of him drinking at a recent summit. Who could blame him? He's been in the deep freeze for months. His authority has plunged with his approval ratings. McCain's political kabuki of running against Bush's policies probably didn't upset him -- he knows how the game is played -- but it did remind him why it was necessary.

Think of his position at the APEC summit where he was alleged to be boozing. Another tedious managerial function at which his presence was required and unnecessary; while the attendees plumped for optimism and reform, bankers and regulators were making real decisions back in the States. Drunk or sober, it has to have worn on the guy. Back at Crawford he could just lift some weights or take a nap.

In fact it's a marvel he's stayed focused as long as he has. Most of his Presidency, and most of his executive career, has been like that summit -- a decision is made, a PR program (usually involving lecterns and backdrops with slogans written on them) is executed, then back to the bunker to collect the data. His famous incuriousness about detail ("Alright, you've covered your ass") probably made the job easy, even fun for him most of the time. But now that no one appreciates the spectacular, graceful ease with which he does barely anything at all, maybe his customary senior-management walk-throughs have become a dreary ritual, like taking victory laps when no one is applauding.

We have been encouraged to imagine what the man of action who has been made expendable might feel: Wilson after his stroke, Johnson when the war had spun out of control. What might go through the mind of a MBA/CEO President who had comfortably delegated so much, who stepped up only when political exigencies demanded his cowboy act, when he comes to the end of two terms and finds himself so singularly disowned by the people he had, by proxy, led?

You might say that Clinton had found himself in a similar place -- certainly as irrelevant, his last term a long vamp of compromise. But Clinton had impeachment to keep him sharp. Scandal just invigorated his glad-handing skills -- it was probably the highlight of his second term. Bush is as capable as Clinton of summoning his political gifts to meet a crisis, but after the September 11 attacks, nothing much seemed to excite him. I really believe he failed to effectively lead the charge to reform Social Security, despite his claims of "political capital," because the subject bored him. It was wonk stuff, it was difficult, and at the end what would he have accomplished? No one really knew, and even if it succeeded no one would remember this brave act of... accountancy. Which is what accountants do, not Presidents. September 11, on the other hand, that was already in history books. That was leadership.

That was the beginning of the end for Bush. The Republican Congress stepped up to fill the void, and found the attention unflattering and eventually fatal. Bush now existed only as a red flag with which ambitious Democrats could enrage voters. Bush, no dummy when it comes to his own best interests, stayed out of the public eye.

Now here he is on ABC, wanly wishing the intelligence on WMDs "had been different, I guess," and calling Iraq "a do-over that I can't do," regretting his inability to guide his own party on immigration, regretting also that "the tone in Washington got worse" -- something that, despite the bipartisan advertisement of his Texas tenure, he never, ever attempted in any way to fix -- and weakly defending his Administration's attempts to "safeguard" a financial system that is plummeting toward collapse.

Why does he bother? Because it's done, and he's used to doing the done thing. Here too is a ritual that he knows he can execute. I've never heard of a CEO who really thought he screwed things up -- there are always exigencies, market conditions, and such like that made a mess of a helluva good plan. But I've seldom seen a CEO make a stink at the end of his tenure, either, however ignoble. With his fatalistic l'envoi, Bush is showing what, in his world, is class. He could tell us all what a shit deal he got dealt, but two-term Presidents don't kick. So he just reads the toplines and brasses it out.

He knows we're disappointed, and it's not that he wouldn't have preferred us to be proud but hey, he's not running for anything anymore except the exit. He never needed us to understand, he just needed us to cooperate, and if he has any fondness for the people he led for eight years, it's because we did cooperate, right up until it didn't matter.

Bush also told ABC that he thinks Obama won because people preferred to see him in their living rooms "explaining policy." Bush was probably thinking about all those televised addresses and speeches he'd made himself, and how relieved he was when these were finished and the secondary could take over. I'm not sure he knows that, when Obama finishes a speech, he probably goes back to work; were he informed of the fact, he would probably shrug and say, "worth a try." Or if he were of a more philosophical frame of mind, he might turn to the immortal works of Clint Eastwood: "A man's gotta know his limitations."

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