Addressing the nation, President George W. Bush, the nation’s 43rd commander-in-chief, bid farewell on Thursday night before a live audience in the White House. For Bush, it marks the end of a controversial and scandal ridden eight years in office marked by a terrorist attack and two deadly wars abroad. With his popularity at record lows, the address was as much an attempt to begin the repair of his tattered legacy as it was a formal farewell to the nation and the faithful, many of whom were gathered at the White House.
Mr. Bush graciously began his speech with a reference to his successor, Barack Obama. “Standing on the steps of the Capitol will be a man whose history reflects the enduring promise of our land. This is a moment of hope and pride for our whole nation. And I join all Americans in offering best wishes to President-Elect Obama, his wife Michelle, and their two beautiful girls.”
Knowing this would be his last televised address to the nation as President, Mr. Bush sought to lay claim to successes during his two terms in office. The President said, “For eight years, we've also strived to expand opportunity and hope here at home. Across our country, students are rising to meet higher standards in public schools. A new Medicare prescription drug benefit is bringing peace of mind to seniors and the disabled. Every taxpayer pays lower income taxes. The addicted and suffering are finding new hope through faith-based programs. Vulnerable human life is better protected. Funding for our veterans has nearly doubled. America's air and water and lands are measurably cleaner. And the federal bench includes wise new members like Justice Sam Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts.” The latter two were picks to the United States Supreme Court that further tilt the court to the right, a driving motivation for many Democrats who went to the polls on November 4.
While every outgoing President is faced with declining popularity and relevance, Mr. Bush’s fall from grace has been quick and steep. The last two years of his administration have been marked with growing public opposition to the nation’s military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the faltering economy. As his numbers have plunged Mr. Bush has found himself isolated and faced with having to defend the core decisions of his tenure. His popularity sunk to such depths that most Republican Congressional candidates avoided having him on the campaign trail during the fall 2008 campaign and the McCain presidential ticket ran as if their party did not have an incumbent in the White House. As he leaves office President Bush is in the unenviable position of defending his administration and making the case for his legacy. It is a sharp turn from the high point of his administration following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 when the nation rallied around Mr. Bush.
The President spent much of his speech making the case that the nation was safer under his leaderhip, fully aware that his dive in popularity and approval are tied to the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, and fell back on his oft used analysis of “good versus evil.” Mr. Bush reminded, “I've often spoken to you about good and evil, and this has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in this world, and between the two of them there can be no compromise. Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense -- and to advance the cause of peace.” It was a point in the speech that perhaps put into perspective for many viewers the narrow lens through which George Walker Bush views the world.
The speech was not solely focused on what Mr. Bush deemed as accomplishments. In one of his rare moments of acknowledging his fall from grace, the President said, “Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks. There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I've always acted with the best interests of our country in mind.” It was a marked departure from a President who so often cast aside criticism and made a practice of suggesting his principles outweighed any consideration of his critics. Mr. Bush clearly understands that history may not view his tenure favorably and has begun some degree of damage control that will likely accelerate when he returns to civilian life and begins work on his presidential library.
Mr. Bush ended his remarks with a final sign-off, stating wistfully, “And so, my fellow Americans, for the final time: Good night. May God bless this house and our next President. And may God bless you and our wonderful country. Thank you.”