From Inaugural To Farewell

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Never tiring, never yielding, never finishing, we renew that purpose today, to make our country more just and generous, to affirm the dignity of our lives and every life. This work continues. This story goes on. And an angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm. [Emphasis Added]

President George W. Bush

2001 Inaugural Address


Q: Will you deliver a farewell address in this office?
PRESIDENT BUSH: Thinking about it. Thinking about it. A lot of Presidents have, and I'm giving it serious thought. ... If I give it, it's going to be trying to leave behind some lessons learned.
Steve Scully, C-SPAN


A prayer for patience is a double-edged sword. Patience may be a virtue but its proof lies in being tested. To pray for one's patience is to almost wish calamity on the individual -- otherwise, how would one know the prayer has been answered? In the same vein, one can recall President Bush's reference to Virginia statesman John Page's words to Thomas Jefferson after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. America repeatedly finds solace in an "exceptionalism" that is Providentially blessed, but must the nation endure only storms to detect and appreciate such benevolence?

When George W. Bush first spoke to the country as President, his remarks to the country were modest, infused with humility, and focused on consolidating the achievements of the preceding decade. Indeed, the "solemn pledge" Bush offered during the speech: "[working] to build a single nation of justice and opportunity," replete with "citizens, not spectators; citizens, not subjects; responsible citizens, building communities of service and a nation of character."

When President Bush spoke the above words, the storm was nothing on the scale of a rebellion against a mighty empire; the whirlwhind was 34 days of furious maneuvering in the aftermath of one of the closest elections in memory. Bush's inauguration culminated this episode in history. Beseeching the angel's benevolence on behalf of only un-ambitious goals appears deficient in hindsight.

History has its own designs -- especially when humanity is seemingly eager to declare its end. Within the year, a band of determined Islamic extremists would attack the nation and precipitate an American response against its sanctuary in Afghanistan and eventually a war on terrorism around the globe. Eight years later, weariness with the experience of war and economic upheaval indeed signal the presence of a storm, less so the hand of the angel.

Whether Bush would still assume an angel's bearing on America's course is unquestioned; he is deeply religious and considers his steadfast devotion to principle as a mark of integrity in a poll-obsessed political environment. But can the president who infamously refused to admit mistakes be prepared to offer lessons learned -- lessons learned only because his compass was wrong? Is there an opportunity for Bush to close out his turbulent presidency on a graceful note, to submit a valedictory message to the American people invoking the angel while also acknowledging his own hand in the storm currently besetting the country?

Precedents?

Unremarkable presidencies rarely close their terms with memorable farewell statements. Historians do not remind the public to heed the final words of Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan or Herbert Hoover. The honor seemingly goes to those who earned a second term, but also did not upend the nation as a result either.

Prior to American superpowerdom, the landmark Farewell Address belonged to the first president, George Washington, who warned the young republic against unduly intimate relations with European nations. In modern American history, more frequent speechmaking (and more importantly television) drew greater attention to the event. While not all administrations have been failures, nor have there been many successful two-term presidencies. In this regard, the most significant remains that of President Dwight Eisenhower, who used his Farewell Address in 1961 to highlight the hazard presented by the rising "military-industrial complex."

President Ronald Reagan underscored his trademark humility when he stated "I wasn't a great communicator, but I communicated great things" in 1989. Of all the modern two-term presidencies, Reagan was unique in that he was bequeathing the office to a preferred successor, so warnings and admonitions were hardly necessary. Nonetheless, Reagan restated the criticality of "first principles" and returned to the "shining city on a hill" that remained his metaphorical lodestar throughout his life.

In contrast, President Bill Clinton couldn't resist trumpeting his administration's accomplishments as his own during the 2001 Address. Where Reagan's constant refrain was what "we" accomplished, Clinton centered the speech on "I", ultimately congratulating himself with "I'm very grateful to be able to turn over the reins of leadership to a new President with America in such a strong position to meet the challenges of the future."

Where do these examples leave Bush? Listening to current commentary, one is convinced Bush is beyond unremarkable, but is in fact a "failed presidency," and thus the right to a farewell has been forfeited. (The constant depiction as "failed" almost conjures the dread attached to the growing international problem of "failed states," where the worst scourges of humanity simply fester and threaten global stability. Castigation as "failed presidency" may be too harsh.)

Undoubtedly, Bush has failed to achieve his most ambitious objectives and his second term was marred by galling incompetence and daunting setbacks, but the Republic has not been endangered by his administration's tenure -- despite what the rabid left spouts on the airwaves and the Web. Historians will ultimately judge whether President Bush was without achievement (and, of course, later revise this judgment, and then reverse course again...).

Possibilities...

Mr. Scully mentioned President Eisenhower's address and President Bush conceded he hadn't conceived of a farewell in terms of a warning. As such, a possibility Bush discussed was warning against a recourse to isolationism and protectionism, commenting "the world needs our presence." While the caveat against these regressive "isms" would be merited, it might be dismissed as bankrupt given the current consensus that Bush's missteps have only fueled the impetus for their resurgence. While Bush has justifiable defenses against being blamed for the overall state of American diplomatic and economic affairs, he is the President and must acknowledge his responsibility if such a warning was to have potency.

Again, acknowledging the angel in the whirlwind may be the appropriate formula. And his repeated profession of best wishes for the incoming Obama Administration might provide the foundation.

To speculate, perhaps Bush can thank the angel for sparing the nation another vicious terrorist attack on the scale of 9/11 -- despite the determined efforts of Al-Qaeda and because of immeasurable sacrifices made by American men and women in uniform and in public service. Perhaps Bush can lament the storm unleashed by his ill-executed war in Iraq, taking responsibility for the 4,221 American dead in Iraq, while highlighting the exceptional work achieved by Gen. David Petraeus and American forces in pacifying Iraq.

Perhaps, Bush could then submit a caveat to the American people reflecting not challenges on the horizon, but experiences from the recent past in the course of presiding over the country during the above events.

Bush is deemed a failure now, but he was re-elected in decisive fashion only four short years ago. Three percentage points is not decisive, but garnering sixteen million new voters over the previous outing to win by three million is. Moreover, the invective on the opposition's side was remarkably personal and vicious -- recall haughty Democratic John Kerry musing out loud, "I can't believe I'm losing to this idiot". The Bush presidency was indeed contentious and great debates raged, but the shrill hysterics (on both sides) was poisonous.

Ultimately, Bush could warn against the continued recourse to politics of personal destruction which he endured, imploring fellow citizens to preserve the elation experienced on Election Night as well as the pride certain to be enjoyed on Inauguration Day. The call would not necessarily be original; Clinton would have been justified in denouncing such partisanship if he hadn't been so keen on perpetuating the lie he told to the American people for over a year.

Repeatedly, Bush has emphasized his sincerity in hoping for Barack Obama's success, despite a political agenda directly at odds with his own. Evidence can be seen in what has been universally applauded as a genuine attempt to facilitate the transition.

A pointed appeal for a more civil political climate -- one Obama's cool demeanor has already earned -- could provide a graceful close to an administration that has had a tumultuous second term.

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