Huffpost Politics
Sam Stein Headshot

Bush Visits Walter Reed, Site Of Symbolic Failure

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Nearly two years after massive controversy erupted over the treatment of wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, George W. Bush will be visiting the medical center on Monday for, likely, his last time as president.

Accompanied by the first lady, Bush will officially be honoring the One Warm Coat Holiday Service Project, according to the Associated Press. There is, however, a thick thread of political symbolism to the affair.

For many Americans, the failure of the government to anticipate and then remedy the conditions at Walter Reed was an unforgivable moral affront. The moldy ceilings, leaky plumage, rodent infestations and bureaucratic bundling were disturbing in and of themselves. That these indignities were inflicted on soldiers that the administration had sent to fight a controversial war was maddening.

"I was placed in a room that didn't have heat in the winter," recalled former Walter Reed resident Brian McGough, a senior adviser to the nonprofit VoteVets.org. "It took forever for them to fix it, so I was finally moved into another facility."

It would be around the time of that move when McGough received his Purple Heart. In 2003, Bush traveled to Walter Reed for a MRI and, hoping to knock off two birds with one stone, passed around awards to some of the wounded soldiers resting under that roof.

"We got called up in the morning told to be at a room in 10," McGough said. "We were called to attention, so you had a bunch of wounded soldiers trying to stand up for the president. He walked around and handed us our purple hearts and left a few minutes later... Six months after that I got a random email from a software engineer for the Army who had the same name as me. He had received a photo in the mail -- a picture of me shaking hands with the president. They had my name, Social Security number, and address and they still sent it to the wrong guy... [And] if you look at the photo... you will see that my first name is spelled wrong. That sums up a lot about this administration."

By the time Walter Reed's problems became public, Bush's popularity was already in a deep and sustained decline. His dumbfounded response to the Washington Post's investigative series on the medical hospital helped crystallized the notion that his was an out-of-touch presidency. His administration claimed to be unaware that these issues existed even though there were reports on the problems from the Department of Veterans Affairs dating back to August 2004.

People resigned. Bush apologized. Promises were made that things would get better. And, to a certain extent, they did. But even as aspects of Walter Reed improved, veterans' care remained -- somewhat incredibly -- a topic of political disagreement. It took Sen. Jim Webb a year and a half to pass the 21st Century GI Bill, and it was done over the objections of Sen. John McCain and the White House.

The politics will change. Bush is one month away from the end date of his presidency. And over the last few months he has done much to ensure that his legacy is shaped more to his liking. The president traveled to Iraq last week for the final time as president, and both he and Vice President Dick Cheney have offered a series of interviews to patch over the dark areas of the last eight years.

Rare, if ever, in these television sit-downs, are they asked about the veterans' care scandal that rocked Washington two years ago. Walter Reed is remembered more as a feat of investigative journalism than as one of the worst mistakes of the Bush administration.

And yet, Monday's visit provides a symbolic bookend to Bush''s conflicted presidency. Most news accounts suggest that the president deeply cared about and was affected by the condition of the wounded soldiers at Walter Reed. But it was on his watch that they were asked to shoulder the burdens of the war on terror, then placed in a bureaucratic and sanitary nightmare upon coming home injured.

"He is leaving," said McGough, "but more wounded soldiers will be coming into Walter Reed because of his decision to go to war."