It was perhaps the most personal of his many goodbyes. And in the process of giving his official farewell address last night, President Bush offered Americans the final image of himself that he wants to etch in their minds: the resolute commander in chief, decisive in fighting terrorism, determined to stick by his principles, and largely unrepentant even over decisions that went wrong.
By his own definition, his presidency will forever be defined by the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before 9/11," Bush said. "But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe."
In the key passage of his address, he referred to what he considers his greatest accomplishment. "America," Bush declared, "has gone more than seven years without another terrorist attack on our soil."
Reading carefully from a TelePrompTer, Bush also issued two warnings:
- "While our nation is safer than it was seven years ago, the gravest threat to our people remains another terrorist attack. Our enemies are patient and determined to strike again. America did nothing to seek or deserve this conflict. But we have been given solemn responsibilities and we must meet them. We must resist complacency. We must keep our resolve. And we must never let down our guard."
- "In the face of threats from abroad, it can be tempting to seek comfort by turning inward. But we must reject isolationism and its companion, protectionism. Retreating behind our borders would only invite danger."
Bush, who will leave office Tuesday when Barack Obama is inaugurated, also touched on many themes that have become familiar in recent weeks as he has given a series of speeches and interviews, and one news conference, to discuss his legacy. He said, for example, that he still believes America must confront evil around the world; that his administration had made progress on many fronts, including taking prompt action to stop the current financial meltdown and fighting AIDS in Africa; and that great strides have been made in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
He dealt only minimally with his mistakes and failures. "Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks," he said. "There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I have always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
Bush delivered the 13-minute speech before a gathering of family, friends, advisers, and well-wishers in the ornate East Room of the White House, site of many state dinners and formal events. Recent presidents have preferred to give their farewell addresses from the Oval Office, speaking directly to the cameras, with no audience.
Bush has said repeatedly that history will vindicate him and that he will eventually be seen as a wiser, more prescient leader than he is given credit for today. But his standing with the public remains very low. The latest Gallup Poll finds that 61 percent of Americans disapprove of his job performance, while 34 percent approve, mostly fellow Republicans. This is almost as grim as Richard Nixon's ratings after he resigned in disgrace in August 1974, when Nixon had 66 percent disapproval and 24 percent approval, Gallup said.