**UPDATE**: I had not heard this when I wrote this post, but after I did hear it, had to include it here. Cenk Uygur from The Young Turks absolutely nails the reason why, when it comes to the level of Presidential politics, we should never forget. Forgive, perhaps. Maybe. But even that should not be a “gimme.” But forget? No. Here it is:
“I believe this — the phrase ‘burdens of the office’ is overstated.”
– George W. Bush, “Ultimate Exit Interview,” January 12, 2009
Dear Mr. President,
I watched with interest your farewell address to the nation on Thursday night. Endings are often a time for reflection, reassessment, sometimes even regret. So I, like a lot of Americans, tuned in to find out whether your parting thoughts for the nation regarding both your own and your administration’s place in history would be any different than the official stories we’d already become familiar with. I suppose I was hoping to hear something different than some of the same explanations, rationales and frankly, excuses that the nation has already heard regarding various issues from the botched response to Hurricane Katrina to the invasion and subsequent mismanagement of Iraq to the decision to have America join the company of nations like Egypt and Uzbekistan on the list of nations who torture prisoners in an attempt to obtain information. That’s why, when you said that there were things you would do differently if given the chance, I held my breath.
I should have known better.
Your actions in each of the events I mentioned, and scores of others, have been given extensive scrutiny by all manner of groups and individuals. And you and your administration, sir, have had ample time to meditate upon any possible mistakes or lost opportunities, and express them to the American people. Yet, for eight years, nary a word. In fact, both you personally and your administration are famously unable – or unwilling, which seems even worse somehow – to name any mistake of significance, let alone offer thoughts regarding what you “might have done differently, if given the chance.” If you couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do so in the aftermath of the events themselves, I don’t know why I expected any different from you in your final prepared remarks to the nation.
A fair number of writers and pundits believe that you have existed as President in “a bubble,” isolated from what everyday Americans think of your administration’s actions. However, I have never been one to subscribe to that notion; it’s my belief that an administration which was so focused upon the political side of things cannot have failed entirely to at least notice the state of your approval ratings, how consistently low they’ve been for so long. I bring this fact up not to “play gotcha,” but because those approval ratings reflect, in summary numerical form, the simple fact that a large majority of Americans have, for some time, neither particularly believed you nor trusted your ability to properly address many if not most of the significant challenges we as a nation face. So when you followed your pleasant sounding but detail-free and therefore semantically void platitude about “doing things differently” with an acknowledgement that people “may not agree with some of the tough decisions (you) have made,” I felt I’d been correct in my view that you certainly are aware at least somewhat of what an astonishing majority of the public thinks about your tenure.
But I have to confess that you managed, probably for the last time, to do something I’d not thought you capable of any longer: you made my jaw drop. When you followed your comment about some people perhaps not agreeing with some of the “tough decisions” you’d made, with the rejoinder that you hoped people could agree that you were “willing to make the tough decisions,” my jaw officially dropped. I have to confess that your words which followed that statement are a bit hazy in my memory, so shocked was I to hear the tone – and obvious implications – of your hope that people would agree you’d at least been willing to make tough decisions.
Isn’t that perhaps the most obvious primary job description of the President, I wondered: having to make tough decisions? Listening to you address not just the two hundred-odd carefully-chosen attendees who’d gathered to hear your remarks in person, but, via television and the internet, three hundred million American souls and countless more around the world, with the hope that they’d agree you were willing to make tough decisions felt like watching a truck driver who’d caused a nineteen-car pileup on the interstate being interviewed afterward, and hearing him say into the camera without irony, regret or apparently even self-awareness, that he hoped people would agree that he’d been willing to drive a truck on long trips.
In fact, as I heard you say what seemed to be the equivalent of those words, I was reminded vividly of a story told to me by a friend long ago. And it was that story itself which prompted me to reply to your farewell address, because it is a baseball anecdote. I know you’re a baseball fan and former team owner, so I thought this might bring it home to you in a way that seems to have escaped you and your administration – at least based upon your reflection on events you had a major or deciding hand in shaping, which affected millions of people around the globe over the last eight years.
I should preface this story by saying that I don’t even know if it’s true. It was told to me anecdotally years ago, and it was the “moral,” if you will, which stuck with me all these years, not the details. And it was also that moral which made me recall this story when I heard you speak aloud your hope that people would agree you’d made tough decisions. Briefly, it was a re-telling of an interview my friend had seen on a sports channel. A manager of a professional baseball team (I can no longer remember whom or what team) which was having a bad, losing season was being interviewed by one of the hosts. Managers are not typically found berating their own players in public, but this season had been particularly poor, and during this interview, the manager went on at length about what a terrible job his team had been doing so far that year. In fact, the manager’s comments were unusual enough and harsh enough that after a while, even the host, who couldn’t deny that the team was indeed having a bad year, seemed embarrassed on behalf of the players. He protested mildly to the manager, saying “hey, now – wait a minute. Obviously, things haven’t been going well, and there are areas which need a lot of improvement. But aren’t you being a little bit harsh on your own players, here? After all, they’re out there trying hard.”
Such a statement strives for agreement; like your hope that Americans would agree that you’d been making tough decisions, the host’s question was clearly an attempt to get the manager to relent in his criticism a bit, and to “throw a bone” to the team. But that’s what made the manager’s response – in my friend’s long-ago retelling of the story – so unusual, and why the story has stuck with me for so many years. At that mild chiding by the host, the manager snapped back “Aw, bull! Trying hard? These guys aren’t paid hundreds of thousands – some of them millions – of dollars a year to ‘try hard.’ I promise you, I could take any two dozen young, able-bodied truck drivers and pay them a quarter of what my players get paid – if that – and they’d go out there and try their guts out, fourteen hours a day, for a shot at that kind of salary. Of course my team needs to try hard, but that isn’t what they’re paid so much money to do; they’re paid that kind of money to WIN.”
I remember vividly that the story sounded a bit harsh when I first heard it, but after some thought, I began to agree with the manager’s position. Apocryphal or not, I realized the point of the story – the “moral,” if you will – is that when one assumes one of the highest-profile positions in existence in any given field, people expect more from you than simply a good effort. They expect you to be right far more often than you’re wrong. They expect you to bring a winning solution and competence to the job, whether it’s shortstop or President. Yes, everyone makes mistakes, from Presidents to neurosurgeons to dishwashers. That goes without saying. But there is only one President at any one time, and his responsibilities are arguably greater than any other job in the world. As such, I’d like him to have a better average when it comes to making mistakes than your typical dishwasher. Or, as that professional baseball team manager put it, at the level you’ve been hired to play at, Mr. President, people expect results, not just effort. And it remains in the area of results – not of effort – where you and your administration have fallen so woefully short, again and again.
It’s often been said that history is made by those who show up. But as the story of the baseball manager demonstrates, merely showing up and giving a good effort isn’t enough – not nearly enough – to create or shape any sort of history that most people want to live through, nor is it anything to be proud of. You have left this nation in a terrible mess, Mr. President. And while I don’t wish you personally any ill will, Thursday’s final press conference was a bold-face, double-underlined reminder of why the end of your Presidency cannot come soon enough. Obliviousness and incompetence are never a good combination in anything. In the leader of the free world, as the last eight years have provided ample evidence of, they are a downright poisonous combination.