For a president who has experienced notoriously bad luck over his eight years in office, the water-landing of bird-struck U.S. Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River shortly after takeoff yesterday afternoon, which resulted in almost nonstop primetime cable news coverage focusing on the heroism and miraculous lack of fatalities, spared him of an evening that might have been dominated by analysis of his farewell address. Discussion of the problems with the speech—that is to say, his presidency—will undoubtedly resume in full today. Indeed, he began his final address to the nation, which took place at the White House in front of an audience of approximately 250 and which was brief enough to postpone Must See TV by only 15 minutes, by thanking the American people for their trust, even as he has betrayed that trust at every juncture of his presidency.
But it was his more specific statements that were the most problematic. Bush quoted Thomas Jefferson (“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past,” the third president of the United States once wrote), no doubt intending to evoke America’s unwavering, centuries-long optimism but instead shining a light on Bush’s own dismissive, even contemptuous, view of that history. This isn’t the type of man who ever buried his nose in his books back at Yale, and he isn’t the type to reflect on the lessons of history either. Hell, he wasn’t even willing to learn from the mistakes of his own father.
Bush claimed his administration turned Afghanistan from “a nation where the Taliban harbored al-Qaida and stoned women in the streets, to a young democracy that is fighting terror and encouraging girls to go to school,” a statement in direct conflict with reports that have come out of the country over the last few years. On Wednesday, The New York Times painted a picture of Afghanistan that is far different: The Taliban is not only resurgent in the region, bolstered by new recruits in the years since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, but they are specifically targeting female students, attacking schools and trading stones for acid. Young women continue to defiantly attend classes, but it’s far from the rosy picture Bush would like us to imagine.
In his speech, Bush said America’s air, water, and land is “measurably cleaner” than it was eight years ago, and while that may be statistically accurate (the country’s air, water, and land has been steadily improving for the last 30 years, ever since the modern environmental movement began and Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts), but Bush has refused to take almost every important step required to further protect the country’s natural resources and wildlife, leasing protected land to oil companies like a subprime mortgage broker in a minority neighborhood and gutting the list of threatened and endangered species. He has failed to lead developing nations like China and India by refusing to further cap carbon emissions or truly encourage clean energy, he has starved environmental protection budgets and altered scientific data, and he has promoted the thinning of national forests under the guise of keeping them “healthy.”
When asked about his mistakes at his final press conference on Monday, Bush said the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was “a significant disappointment.” It wasn’t just a disappointment—it was a disaster. But it’s the things Bush doesn’t deem disappointments or disasters that could feasibly take several presidencies to undo, if ever. In his farewell address, he said that our “gravest threat” was not the systematic shredding of our Constitution, the suspension of due process, the expansion of executive power and privilege, the discrediting of science, the stifling of dissent, or an economy in tatters, but “another terrorist attack” on American soil. For the coming weeks and months, and probably years, President-elect Barack Obama will be spending most of his time playing cleanup, which means affordable, accessible healthcare and clean energy will likely continue to be the pipedreams of hippies and so-called Marxists. And that might be the outgoing administration’s greatest accomplishment of all.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.