Although President Bush said that he didn’t care about his popularity, or lack thereof, while in office or thereafter, the interview he appeared in Monday night with Matt Lauer conveyed the opposite. He spent a great deal of time justifying his presidential actions. Further, the things he said he is regretful of are things that had more to do with his personal image than anything else.
The interview began in Bush’s church, where he talked of personal memories, including his mother’s miscarriage and his drinking days (denying, no doubt to the incredulity of his critics, that they extended into his presidency). It was especially during this point that a glimpse was caught of George W. Bush’s humanity. Though touching at times, that soft, personal lead-in did little to absolve the former president of what some people consider to be his most horrific acts as president.
Perhaps the most egregious bit of justifying came on the topic of waterboarding: a topic that the president himself brought up.
“Let’s talk about waterboarding,” he said. And then he dived in. “We believe America’s going to be attacked again. There was all kinds of intelligence coming in. And one of the high-valued al-Qaeda operatives was Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, chief operating officer of al-Qaeda, ordered the attack on 9/11. They said, ‘He’s got information.’ I said, ‘Find out what he knows.'” He continued, “And so I said to our team, ‘Are the techniques legal?’ And a legal team says ‘Yes they are.’ And I said ‘Use ’em.'”
Lauer then asked, “Why is waterboarding legal, in your opinion?” Bush quickly responded, “Because the lawyers said it was legal. Said it did not fall within the anti-torture act… but, you gotta trust the judgment of people around you and I do.”
Lauer pointed out that there are critics who say that the former president got the legal authorization and memos that he wanted to get. And, though Bush denied those allegations, he said, “I will tell you this: using those techniques saved lives. My job was to protect America, and I did.”
Lauer then brought up another man who was waterboarded, Abu Zubaydah, He then said, “By the way, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded… 183 times.”
Bush went into justification mode, saying, “Look, look. First of all, we used this technique on three people. Captured a lot of people and used it on three. We gained valuable information to protect the country and, um, it was the right thing to do as far as I’m concerned.”
Interestingly, the former president didn’t answer Lauer’s next question directly.
“So, if it’s legal, President Bush, then if an American is taken into custody in a foreign country… would it be okay for a foreign country to waterboard an American citizen?”
Bush cut across Lauer a couple of times, at one point saying he wasn’t going to debate the point, and finally said, “All I ask is that people read the book. And they can reach the same conclusion if they’d’ve made the same decision I made or not.” He added that he would make the same decision today if faced with those same circumstances.
Former President Bush seemed to have only two regrets from his presidency – both having to do with Hurricane Katrina. Unfortunately, neither regret had anything to do with the people and their suffering. Rather, they were self-centered.
The first regret was that he flew over New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina looking down on it from an Air Force One window and didn’t touch down. He said he should have. But it seemed that, more than anything, he was bothered by the fact that because he was photographed looking down on New Orleans without stopping, he was perceived as detached.
The next moment of regret, so to speak, which Bush says was the worst moment of his presidency was when singer Kanye West said that “…Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Bush took this to mean that West was calling him a racist. With seemingly repressed rage in his voice, Bush said that he didn’t appreciate the accusation then or now. He added, “I resent it. It’s not true. And it was one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.”
Lauer pointed out that Bush wrote in his book that this was the worst moment in his presidency and speculated that some people might be bothered by that, considering all that happened while Bush was in office. To this, Bush responded, “I don’t care.”
If President Bush published his memoirs or appeared with Matt Lauer to help improve his legacy, it would seem that he has failed. All he has done is set himself up to be known as “The Great Justifier.” However, time tends to be a kind mistress to past presidents, and perhaps she will deliver George “Dubya” Bush gently into the future, as she has done with so many before him.