Seeking to start his second term with a clean slate, President Bush said he wanted to address what he called the "unintended consequences" of two of his most famous remarks. "Sometimes, words have consequences you don't intend them to mean," he told a group of newspaper reporters at a White House roundtable last week.
One of the remarks in question was made a week after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. "I want justice," Bush said at the Pentagon on September 17, 2001. "And there's an old poster out West that I recall that said, 'Wanted—dead or alive.' " In a recent interview on ABC's 20/20, Bush acknowledged that he had not used "the most diplomatic of language." He told Barbara Walters, "I do have to be cautious about conveying thoughts in a way, maybe, that doesn't send wrong impressions about our country."
The other remark with unintended consequences was made on July 2, 2003, two months after Bush had declared an end to major combat in Iraq. "There are some who feel like the conditions are such that they can attack us there," the president said. "My answer is, Bring 'em on."
Bush told the newspaper reporters last week that his words were interpreted to signal "defiance in the face of danger." He added, "That certainly wasn't the case." But what else could "bring 'em on" possibly mean?
Bush has been notably reluctant to admit mistakes. In April 2004, when a reporter asked him whether he had made mistakes, the president answered, "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 an answer, but it hadn't yet." During the October 8 presidential debate, a voter asked Bush to name three instances "when you came to realize you had made a wrong decision." After defending his decision to go to war in Iraq, Bush responded, "Now you asked what mistakes—I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them. I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV."
Why has Bush suddenly decided to express—first in a print interview, then on television—what he told the reporters they could call "a confession, a regret, something"? The president chose not to do it during the campaign, when Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry made every effort to throw Bush's words back in his face. "If George Bush wants to make national security the central issue of this campaign," Kerry said the night he won the Iowa caucuses, "I have three words for him we know he understands: 'Bring it on!' "
Bush did make national security the central issue of the campaign. But Kerry's challenge ultimately fizzled because the president ran on his image of strength. And the remarks Bush says he regrets were crucial to his campaign strategy. He used them to show resolve and determination: "Dead or alive," "Bring 'em on." They now seem a bit foolhardy. The United States has not captured Osama bin Laden, dead or alive. The Iraqi insurgents did "bring 'em on," and U.S. troops are still trying to cope with the problem.
When Bush said those things, many people thought he sounded like a cowboy. As it happens, a lot of Americans like cowboys. But some find that kind of tough talk reckless. In September 2002, a few months before the Iraq war, former Vice President Gore criticized what he called Bush's "do-it-alone, cowboy-type reaction to foreign affairs." Gore warned, "Before you ride out after Jesse James, you ought to put the posse together."
Critics abroad often portray Bush as a cowboy. And they don't mean it as a compliment. Interviewed in London in 2002, Jonathan Freedland, political columnist for The Guardian, put it this way: "Europeans think, 'This guy doesn't sound smart. He sounds like the worst Hollywood cliche of the gunslinging cowboy.' We find it hard to respect that."
The unintended consequence of Bush's remarks was to create bitter divisions over the United States' acting like the Lone Ranger. Having run in 2000 on a pledge to be "a uniter, not a divider," Bush has divided the country more deeply than ever and mostly divided it over himself. This month's Pew Research Center poll shows Bush starting his second term with a 50 percent job-approval rating, the lowest for any re-elected president since World War II. The reason, according to the Pew report, is "greater disapproval from members of the opposing party than was the case for his re-elected predecessors."
Bush is seen as governing more from the right than voters expected when he first took office. In January 2001, the public expected, by 48 percent to 37 percent, that the new president would pay slightly more attention to conservatives than to moderates in his party. And now? The ratio is 2-to-1 (54 percent to 27 percent). Four years ago, by 50 percent to 41 percent, the public thought Republicans and Democrats would "bicker and oppose one another more than usual" rather than "work together more to solve problems." And now? The ratio is 2-to-1 (59 percent to 30 percent).
In his first term, Bush divided the country and the world. He may not have intended to. But he did. Now, as he gets ready to start his second term, he's trying to heal those divisions.