President George W. Bush, who for much of the last eight years engaged in long-range combat with critical media, spent an entertaining 45 minutes yesterday morning up close and personal with the White House press corps. It was an elliptical final encounter that skipped from serious issues to post-presidential musings such as how he would feel about making his wife's morning coffee.
No shoes were thrown as Mr. Bush cheerfully thanked the journalists for their service, aggressively defended many controversial decisions, admitted a number of tactical errors, complained that reporters had "misunderappreciated" him, and cautioned President-elect Barack Obama against self-pity or neglecting defense of the nation against a possible terrorist attack.
The soon-to-be ex-president, who enjoys the lowest popularity ratings of any president in recent history, said he had no idea why he had become such a divisive figure. But his sunny indifference to criticism and relentless defense of actions that are widely viewed as major mistakes offered clear evidence of a style many Americans find infuriating.
The president, who had previously failed to acknowledge any significant error through his years of service, did express regret that weapons of mass destruction - the justification for the long Iraq war - were not found.
He acknowledged with a smile that placing a "Mission Accomplished" sign on an aircraft carrier early in the war was an error, as was his decision to press Social Security reform immediately after his 2004 re-election. Immigration reform should have been his target, he said. And when he did finally take on that confounding problem, he couldn't persuade fellow Republicans to support a compromise he helped craft.
In talking about the harsh treatment of suspected terrorists and related issues, Mr. Bush remained defiant, saying an angry public made decisive action necessary after the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. There is much to criticize Mr. Bush for, including his deference to Vice President Dick Cheney and his extraordinary assertion of power. But Mr. Bush does deserve recognition for his significant commitment to combating and treating AIDS abroad and his recent protection of large stretches of the Pacific environment.
In the end, the exuberant president said yesterday that he expected history, not journalists, to judge him. With apologies to history for suggesting an early verdict, we believe there is already ample evidence to give Mr. Bush a failing grade.