Seeking to build his legacy, President Bush, in his last address to the nation as chief executive, returned to the defining moment of his tenure — the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While he touted his ability to keep America safe, history will determine whether the steps he took (none of which was referenced during the 13-minute speech) were necessary or improved America’s long-term security.
Showing more contrition than he has during his eight years in office, President Bush referred to “setbacks” and “legitimate debate about many of these decisions.” He did not, however, say what these decisions were. They include locking up without charges hundreds of men at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba, which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled three times is unconstitutional; wiretapping Americans without warrants; and weakening the U.S. military through repeated and extended deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Keeping America safe is, of course, a president’s top priority. But, he is expected to do this within the bounds of the law and common decency. Poll results tend to show that President Bush has not done this. The latest Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll showed President Bush with a 27 percent approval rating. He leaves office the most unpopular president since Richard Nixon.
Like previous farewell addresses, President Bush’s was full of idealism and faith in America’s future. “America is a young country, full of vitality, constantly growing and renewing itself,” he said. “And, even in the toughest times, we lift our eyes to the broad horizon ahead.”
He referred to his gratitude a half-dozen times. He mentioned Iraq and Afghanistan once. His list of accomplishments included higher standards for public schools, lower income taxes, faith-based programs, the Medicare prescription drug benefit, cleaner air and water and doubled funding for veterans.
Again and again, however, the president returned to Sept. 11 and the subsequent war on terror, although he never used that phrase.
“There is legitimate debate about many of these decisions. But there can be little debate about the results,” he said. “America has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil.”
While this may be an important accomplishment, the country’s worsening economic situation has long dwarfed terrorism as the top concern of average Americans. President Bush acknowledged the “tough times for hardworking families,” saying that the situation would be worse without his “decisive measures.”
Returning to the certitude he has shown during his eight years in office, President Bush reiterated his black-and-white view of the world. “I have often spoken to you about good and evil. That has made some uncomfortable. But good and evil are present in the world, and between the two there can be no compromise,” he said.
“Murdering the innocent to advance an ideology is wrong every time, everywhere. Freeing people from oppression and despair is eternally right. This nation must continue to speak out for justice and truth. We must always be willing to act in their defense and to advance the cause of peace.”
Time will tell whether he furthered this cause.