Page last updated at 05:11 GMT, Friday, 16 January 2009

Analysis: Bowing out with conviction

By Kevin Connolly
BBC News, Washington

American public opinion has treated George W Bush harshly in recent years and words have never been his friend, but his last televised address had a directness and conviction about it which made it one of his better speeches.

Bush backs record in final speech

He has found the same tone in his transition meetings with Barack Obama, his final round of interviews and his closing news conference - almost as though he wants America to admire him for the grace with which he is handing on power, even if it did not often admire him for the way in which he exercised it.

The speech will not be remembered for its eloquence, although it did contain the odd shaft of poetry with talk of a country that even in tough times "lifts its eyes to the broad horizons ahead".

And it will not resonate down the hallways of history either, as other presidential farewells have done in the past. This was the moment when George Washington chose to warn his fellow countrymen of the perils of foreign entanglements, the moment when Dwight Eisenhower alerted his nation to the power of the military-industrial complex.

But it was a speech which succeeded in its own terms - Mr Bush set out to portray himself as an essentially decent man who had followed his conscience in making difficult choices, asking only that his fellow countrymen respect the sincerity with which he approached his task. And that is precisely what he did.

Eye on posterity

His presidency will be forever defined by the attacks on New York and Washington on 9/11 and by the events which flowed from them - including the still unresolved military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As Mr Bush put it: "As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe. "

The president was, in effect, inviting his most passionate critics to set what they most dislike about him in this context: to see the expansion of wire-tapping, extraordinary rendition, water-boarding and the opening of the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay as the actions of an administration seeking to contain an active and continuing threat from a dangerous enemy.

US President George Bush at the site of the World Trade Center on 14 September 2001
Mr Bush spoke of how 9/11 changed his life

For a man with a generally mild public demeanour, Mr Bush has a truly startling ability to conjure demons of rage in his critics and opponents.

One conservative columnist here even coined the phrase "Bush Derangement Syndrome" to describe the the strength of emotion he provokes in those who disagree with him.

With those critics, his words will cut no ice - they will continue to believe that he has compromised American freedoms in defence of American freedom.

But you sensed that Mr Bush already has his eyes on history's verdict - knowing from his abysmally low opinion poll ratings that the judgement of his own day has already gone against him.

Who knows - perhaps historians will judge him kindly as a man who remained eternally vigilant to the threat of renewed attack, reorganised its security services to deal with the threat, and kept his people safe.

For the moment though, he looks more like a man who has seen the country's budget deficit double on his watch and who is leaving power with the US mired in two foreign conflicts and deep in recession.


It was never going to be the place for any sort of honest reckoning of mistakes - although Mr Bush has owned up to a few in recent weeks - but there was a degree of humility in the admission that there were things he would do differently if given the chance.

But there was something much more revealing about a line which followed shortly afterwards, in which Mr Bush said: "You may not agree with the tough decisions I've made, but I hope you'll agree I was ready to make the tough decisions."

In that single sentence, Mr Bush is acknowledging the unpopularity of much of what he has done, while also signalling the depth of his continuing conviction that he got those big decisions right.

A sign advertises a bank repossessed home for sale in San Clemente, California
The president leaves the country deep in recession

The overall tone of the speech had a melancholic feel to it.

Mr Bush, a successful businessman, a two-term president and two-term governor of Texas, has been a winner nearly all his life.

This cannot be how he imagined his time in office ending, with the low ratings, the sense of fatigue and the unmistakable appetite in America for the era of Barack Obama to begin.

As far as history's verdict goes, Mr Bush must now hope that the Truman factor will come into play.

Harry Truman was highly unpopular when he left office in the early 1950s, but most historians now recognise that he was a great president who was dealt a losing hand by history and who played it with skill and style.

When I asked one eminent American historian if he thought there would be a Truman effect for Mr Bush in the future he paused for a moment, then burst out laughing.

Even Mr Bush seems to catch a sense of the impatience for a change of administration that is in the air, praising his successor (who is an ideological opponent, do not forget) as a man "whose history reflects the enduring promise of our land".

So what was Mr Obama's verdict on his predecessor's final performance on network television?

Well it was eloquent, but unspoken. At the moment Mr Bush began to speak, we received a few lines of copy from the White House announcing that the president-elect had left his temporary home in Washington and headed out to dinner.

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