The last, tortured days of King George

When it comes to George W. Bush’s last hurrahs in the waning days of his administration, I am much in favor of the "last" and not so keen on the "hurrahs."

But it is a time for magnanimity, not malice, and for once this president has provided some leadership.

In his final news conference, he was, as The New York Times observed, by turns impassioned and defiant, reflective and light-hearted. Why, he even made little jokes with the despised media and generally gave the impression of being the dutiful decider.

Someone newly arrived from another planet or living in a remote part of the country where reality does not much intrude and thinking hasn’t caught on, perhaps in a red state, might have been impressed.

Here was George W. Bush as a charming, likable sort of fellah, well intentioned, self-effacing, strong, on the face of it guilty of nothing more than repeatedly assaulting the English language.

What a strange bundle of contradictions the man presents. In accounting for his faults — the easy part, in my reckoning — an observer writing the first draft of history is obliged to consider his strengths and virtues.

Strengths? virtues? This is heresy in certain liberal quarters, but it is obviously true that he possesses some. He wouldn’t have become president unless he had appeal to some people.

Some people saw something in him they liked. I am just the one to catalog these strengths because I, unlike some other people, do not hate this president.

(I try to make a point of not hating anyone, with the exception of Osama bin Laden, who is guilty of being the worst type of terrorist, and Simon on "American Idol," who is guilty of being the worst type of Englishman.) Here is the thing about Bush that makes his character such a contradiction: His strengths are his weaknesses and his weaknesses are his strengths. Let me explain in excruciating detail.

Bush is famously loyal to his friends. This is a fine attribute that in any other person would speak unqualifiedly to his good character. Trouble is, his friends were a sorry crew who pretty much took over his presidency and made a wreck of it presumably while he was riding his bike.

There was Rummy, who brooked no opposition especially if it were right, and Cheney, the torturer’s friend who may not have wielded an actual pitchfork but did seem to put a strong smell of sulfur into discerning nostrils. If the Constitution now bears the imprint of cloven hooves, look no further for a suspect.

Bush is also stubborn, the handmaiden of his previous virtue/weakness. It is good to be stubborn when you are right, not good when you are wrong. Of course, to change your mind, you first have to have one. Alas, in his loyalty to his friends, he outsourced thinking to them, or so it appeared.

Bush is a regular guy. I like this in a person myself. I like to say that my name Reg is short for Regular (it isn’t true, but I like to say it). Despite the crushing handicap of going to an Ivy League school, Bush has the common touch; I just wish he hadn’t touched us all so commonly.

Regular guys like to pretend they are tough. It is good to be tough; it is better to be tough and smart. But Bush didn’t do smart — he was too busy being tough and regular.

Bush saw everything in black and white, which is good in an observer of zebras but not in a decider of public policy. The world is painted in shades of gray, which is a problem only for someone seeking handy targets.

And so it goes in almost every detail of his life and presidency. He put Saddam Hussein out of business (hurrah!) but Iraq wasn’t behind 9/11 (whoops!). He kept the homeland safe from terrorists for more than seven years (good) but in the first place didn’t heed the warning that al-Qaeda might attack before 9/11 (bad). He loves the Almighty (good) but tried to foist his religious views on the rest of us (bad).

As the trash bin of history is wheeled up to take him and his administration away, I am glad to put in my two cents about his virtues for the record. Unfortunately, two cents is about all I can afford in the economy he is leaving us.

(Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail rhenry(at)