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Bush’s Closing Argument: Was Anybody Listening?

5 minute read
David Von Drehle

President George W. Bush said farewell to the nation, but the nation wasn’t paying attention. TV barely cut to him in time for his first words Thursday evening and couldn’t wait to cut away when he finished 13 minutes later. Something unexpected and awesome had happened to shoulder him out of the picture: a jet gliding to a stop in the middle of the Hudson River, with everyone emerging safely. The departure of President Bush, by contrast, had become part of the world’s mental wallpaper some time ago.

Bush spoke from the East Room of the White House, filled with a friendly audience drawn from his Administration and honored guests. But the assembled crowd was merely the backdrop — the real audience was history. He knows he has lost the short-term argument, the one measured in opinion polls and approval ratings. This was a speech aimed at the long run. (See pictures of President Bush in the Middle East.)

And in the long run, Bush clearly believes, the gaze of history will settle a few hundred yards to the southeast of the Miracle on the Hudson, on the spot where jets hammered skyscrapers and there were no happy endings. Speaking for the last time from the President’s mansion, Bush recalled that his first such speech was on the evening of Sept. 11, 2001. An easy trick for his speechwriters would have been to toss in a few lines about the skill and courage of his countrymen on the plane in the river, but Bush decided not to go there. The day’s headline had power but no lasting significance — and that made it an example of what he sees as a dangerous tendency to shift focus away from the big picture.

Or, to use his own words: “As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did.”

Perhaps, then, it was a mistake to give even passing mention to a horn-tooting list of favorite achievements, like education reform, tax cuts and the expansion of Medicare. Maybe he was right to pass by the collapse of the economy with less passion than he devoted to the story of the father of a Marine killed in Iraq. He could hardly be accused of making a big deal about nonwar matters when he summed up the current crisis in a single sentence: “These are very tough times for hardworking families, but the toll would be far worse if we had not acted.”

These issues pale beside the battle against radical Islam and its terrorist tactics, Bush insisted. Making his closing argument for the history books, the President declared, “America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.” And he pleaded with the country to maintain the focus. “America did nothing to seek or deserve this conflict,” he said. “But we have been given solemn responsibilities, and we must meet them. We must resist complacency. We must keep our resolve. And we must never let down our guard.”

The tradition of a farewell address began with George Washington. His stern defense of an independent America free of foreign entanglements and deaf to the intrigues of Europe was the nation’s first great speech. Citizens in villages across the country staged annual recitations for decades after Washington’s death. Dwight Eisenhower used his valedictory to issue a memorable warning against a permanent “military-industrial complex” — an alert more quoted than heeded. (See pictures of President Bush’s summer trip to Europe.)

Bush clearly had these examples in mind as he wove an inventory of the familiar American virtues into the fabric of his urgent priorities. “In the 21st century,” he said, “security and prosperity at home depend on the expansion of liberty abroad.” This was one more formulation of Bush’s central philosophy, which he said is threatened by the rise of an isolationist and protectionist mood. “If America does not lead the cause of freedom,” he continued, “that cause will not be led.”

It’s a long way from Washington’s isolationist farewell to Bush’s ideal of universal liberty ushered in by American leadership and intervention. Someone could write a rich history of the world with those two brief speeches as bookends. On a personal level, it’s a long way from the chesty, swaggering George W. Bush of bygone years to the resigned and pensive man in the East Room, who repeatedly acknowledged the large number of people who disagree with his views. “You may not agree with some tough decisions I have made,” he said. “But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions.”

Hard to imagine that at his zenith, George W. Bush would ever have wanted to quote the Marxist revolutionary Leon Trotsky, but one of Trotsky’s famous lines would have fit perfectly into his farewell. “You may not be interested in war,” Bush said in essence, “but war is interested in you.”

Instead, he used his own words: “Our enemies are patient and determined to strike again.” With that final warning, Bush entered the past. But was anyone listening?

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