The loneliest man in Washington during Obama's inauguration ceremonies must have been George W. Bush. After all, a record 1.5 million people came to celebrate Obama's arrival at the White House. From another perspective, it meant 1.5 million people were happy to see Bush leave.
Watching him, I was reminded about his "final" farewell speech to the American people last week. At that time, I couldn't help thinking about the fact that his cabinet was one of the most secretive in history, consistently hostile, suspicious and guarded toward the press. During his administration, you could never get him to speak off-script. Now that he was leaving office, you couldn't get him to shut up. After his "ultimate exit interview" in the White House pressroom recently, he followed with an interview on Larry King Live, then a final farewell address to the nation. He also chatted it up with Fox News. I wouldn't doubt if he's already booked on Barbara Walters, where he'll shed a final tear.
During his administration, he went mercilessly after everyone that defied him - press, staff, political rivals, CIA operatives. Now he wants to be everybody's friend, expecting people to understand that he did what he did because it was his job to do it. You wouldn't think a man who was so vindictive in office could be that naïve, but I suspect that we're finally seeing the real George Bush again. He would probably find nothing awkward about meeting Valerie Plame at a party. He'd give a little laugh and say, "Hey, no hard feelings, right? It was just business." Should she give him the cold shoulder, he'd be genuinely puzzled.
Now that his job is over, his friends get the old George Bush back - the funny guy, the life of the party. We saw that part of him every now and then during his presidency: Giving a neck rub to German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the G-8 Summit; making funny faces and hamming it up when the locked door barred his exit after a press conference in China; quipping, after having shoes thrown at him, "If you want the facts, it's a size 10 shoe that he threw."
My sense is that Bush really does believe he did what was best for the country. As he said on Fox News, he leaves the White House "with sense of accomplishment," and he means it. Like the typical parent, he is convinced the future will prove him right, and the kids will one day look back and understand why he did what he did, and agree that he did what he had to do.
In any event, he never really wanted to be president. Sure, it was fun for a while, especially when he was waging war, flying in jets and swooshing down upon the deck of carriers in a flight suits. But after a while the fun went out of it and he found himself a hounded, hunted man, attacked on every side, vilified for every move he made, the most misunderstood man in America.
When running the White House, Bush had his speechwriters, his PR counsels and image handlers scripting every move he made and every word he uttered. Now that he no longer has the burden of representing America on the world stage, he can be his old self again, kick his feet back and grab himself a brewsky.
While he seemed eager last week to protect his legacy and position himself as the president who had to make all the hard decisions - giving a final spin on the war, the economy, and America's battered image abroad - my feeling is that he'll grow tired of the effort soon enough. It was just a momentary sense of panic, like the man who suddenly realizes he's about to lose his job and tries desperately to prove to his boss that he was too valuable to let go. A few days later, he realizes that losing his job was the best thing that ever happened to him. The job was really stressing him out.
The pomp and circumstance of Obama's gala inauguration and his jumping right into the job have effectively wiped Bush off the pages of the newspapers. With everyone busily examining the significance of every move Obama makes in the weeks after he takes office, Bush will fade from the American conscious. It's doubtful he'll do anything meaningful with his life after leaving office, such as supporting humanitarian programs like other former presidents or becoming a spokesperson for a global cause. Bush was never a guy to care about others, and he's not going to start now.
Unless Bush commits some egregious crime, the book he has threatened to write will probably received a lukewarm reception. Everyone will just expect him to perpetuate the same old stories and the same old lies about his motivations for doing the things he did as president, and see no reason to read the book. And that will probably be just fine with him. He'll drink to that.