Picture Lincoln, in the throes of the Civil War, suddenly mocking his critics in a nyah-nyah voice. Imagine Theodore Roosevelt, leaving office, lamenting out loud about how hated he was by Standard Oil. Summon an image of FDR cracking wise about his wheelchair and grousing about the nasty things Hitler was saying about him.
Now consider George W. Bush on Monday. He bobbed and weaved and smiled wistfully, quipped about giving up drinking, deployed a mock European accent to kid a reporter, vowed to make his wife coffee. At the same time, he warned about terrorism, bristled at comments that the federal response to Hurricane Katrina was slow and said finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — the rationale for a six-year war — was "a significant disappointment."
"You never escape the presidency," says Bush, who is about to. But before he did, the guy who is the most powerful leader on the planet for one more week had some things to say in what he called "the ultimate exit interview."
The session, televised live, was offered up as a valedictory news conference. But it also proved an extraordinary glimpse behind the psychic curtain and an illuminating window into what we want — and may not want — out of the modern presidency.
Bush was at turns erratic and eloquent, nostalgic and melancholy, gracious and cantankerous, regular guy-ish and resignation-era Nixonian. It all felt strangely intimate and, occasionally, uncomfortable in the manner of seeing a plumber wearing jeans that ride too low.
"He was like a second-semester senior — the grades don’t matter anymore," said John Baick, a historian at Western New England College who studies the presidency.
Americans are forever insisting they want a regular Joe in the Oval Office, someone they could go out and grab a beer with. Could it be, though, that in this post-Monicagate era of the celebrity full monty, there are actually some presidential ruminations we can do without? Was George W. Bush, of all people, too intimate on Monday?
Part of it is immediacy. American leaders have tended to be circumspect until they’re well out of office. Presidential autobiographies, the usual way a departing leader gets his message out, are well-vetted, heavily edited and heartily post-presidential. Ulysses S. Grant’s was one of the few interesting specimens, and he did it while dying because his family needed the money. So for a sitting chief executive to range around the attic of his mind at reporters’ behest on live TV is a true spectacle, even in this age of details on demand.
That it was this particular president made it even more unusual. Bush has cast his lack of introspection as a virtue and once said, according to a biographer, "I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure me out." So to watch him assist reporters who are trying to figure him out was fascinating — particularly since he seemed to be all over the place. "It was all the George Bushes who came to that podium," CNN’s Candy Crowley said.
Finally, the odd juxtapositions that Bush offered boggled the mind. It’s hard to fathom a performance that managed to contain both the words "big straw hat and a Hawaiian shirt sitting on some beach" and "there’s an enemy that would like to attack America — Americans — again." In fairness, Bush was at the mercy of the news-conference format and his questioners, who are hardly shrinking violets.
And the sight of a sitting president offering vague mea culpas ("Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake"), then affecting a fake whine while complaining about whiners who bemoan the hardships of the office ("Oh, the burdens, you know. Why did the financial collapse have to happen on my watch?") was just jarring.
"I can’t even construct a rationale for what they were trying to do today," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center and an expert on political communication.
"You heard pain. You heard self-pity. You heard a clear acknowledgment that he knows he has not been judged kindly in the moment," she said. "You see him trying to put into place a rebuttal. But it’s not working."
The official presidential farewell, though not always offered, has been a way to seal legacies and create closing arguments that echo beyond the presidency. When George Washington went home, he warned of entangling alliances with European powers, a clarion call that resonated for decades beyond his death. Dwight D. Eisenhower’s departing caution about the "military-industrial complex" helped define his presidency to historians.
Bush has scheduled his own farewell address for Thursday night. But Monday’s news conference probably contained far more YouTube moments and seemed more concerned with something he has, at times, purported not to care about: his legacy. Yet according to psychiatrist Dr. Justin A Frank, that’s a misconception.
"Bush is tremendously invested in the illusion of his inner goodness," Frank wrote in 2004 in "Bush on the Couch: Inside the Mind of the President." He asserted that Bush "is at his core a fragile man."
Unless Bush comes up with something weighty on Thursday night, one of the final images of his tenure will be this appearance — not a speech, not a gravitas-laden sum-up but a series of bullet points that fit the PowerPoint world in which he lives yet seem, somehow, deeply out of place for an American chief executive.
"We don’t have a king, we don’t have a prime minister. We have a president. And he has to be everything," Baick said. "He has to be regal, he has to be common. But making jokes about being a recovering alcoholic in the same speech in which you talk about a cease-fire in Gaza, that’s just inexplicably strange."
Ted Anthony covers politics and culture for The Associated Press. Comments about Measure of a Nation can be sent to measure(at)ap.org