I mentioned a few minutes ago, while GW Bush's final press conference was underway, that the president seemed unusually "self-aware."
That's not quite right. On matters of policy, he revealed himself to be as isolated and out of touch as his critics (including me) would have assumed all along. Two illustrations: he hotly challenged the premise of one question that his policies had made America less prestigious and respected around the world, saying that was just the view of some "elites" and other pantywaists in part of Europe. Go to China! he said. They still respect us there. Yes, sort of. As I've written many times in the Atlantic, China does not seem in any deep way "anti-American," and they generally think US-China relations are good. But no thinking person has the slightest doubt that the Iraq, Guantanamo, and Abu Ghraib policies, in particular, have hurt America's image badly here as they have in most other places. To say what the President did indicates how carefully he has been protected from any unfiltered feedback from the real world.
So too with his wistful, regretful-sounding comments about the "harsh tone" in Washington DC. He was completely believable in saying that he hoped things would go better for Barack Obama. But does he recall the name Karl Rove? Does he remember which Vice President told a U.S. Senator from the other party to fuck off, on the Senate floor? There is no point refighting these wars. I'm simply saying: the very sincerity of the President's comments indicated how isolated he has been, or what he has chosen to forget.
Nonetheless: I think even people who oppose the Bush Administrations policies would find it somewhat harder to dislike him viscerally after this performance -- rather than getting angrier the more they see him, as with most of his appearances over these last eight years. The self-awareness I mentioned was purely on a personal level. Even though he defended his tax cuts and his other policies and even the execution of the Katrina response, everything in his posture, expression, and body language -- even his emphasis on the word defeat in talking about the 2008 results -- indicated that he has taken in the fact that things have not gone well.
It is true, he can hardly express himself in anything resembling sentences. But he displayed none of the little moue of pride when he got out a tricky name or a big word, a tic very familiar from his past speeches. To me, he helped rather than hurt himself with this last performance. And to recognize what an achievement this is: think how it would be to hear a valedictory hour's worth of Dick Cheney.