George W. Bush ended his final news conference on a note of lament.
Slightly more than a week before he cedes the Oval Office to Barack Obama, the 43rd President offered a longer, more introspective list of regrets and mistakes than during any one of his previous presidential pressers. But it was the final question that seemed to strike, at least for him, a symbolic note.
Bush was reminded that, at one point in time, he had come to Washington pledging to end the partisan rancor that had roiled government. Was Barack Obama's pledge to do exactly the same not a signal of Bush's failure on this front?
"I hope the tone is different for him rather than it has been for me," the president said. "I have been disappointed by the tone in Washington D.C. I have tried to do my part by not engaging in the name-calling, by the way, needless name-calling. I have worked to be respectful of my opponents on the issues."
"The rhetoric got out of control at times," Bush continued, before being asked: "why?"
"I don't know why," he replied. "You need to ask those who used the words they used... Frankly for the sake of the system itself, if people disagree with president-elect Obama they treat him with respect. I worry about people looking at our system saying: why would I want to go up there and work in that kind of environment? I wish him all the best. No question there will be critics, there should be... I just hope the tone is respectful. He deserves it and so does the country."
Bush, of course, is as responsible for the vitriolic undercurrent in Washington as any other pol in the Capitol. Among the more critical moments include the 2002 mid-term elections, when the issues of national security and patriotism were used as electoral shivs against Democrats, effectively putting to end the post-9/11 era of post-partisanship.
At the same time, it is a right of passage of incoming administrations to build a platform around changing Washington's tone. Obama may be more committed to the idea, but there is nothing historically unique to the rhetoric he espouses. As Mark Leibovich wrote in his Week in Review piece this Sunday:
George W. Bush began his administration with a promise to "change the tone" in Washington only to end it with a lament over his inability to do so (unless, some argue, he made it worse). Bill Clinton began his second term by calling a halt to "acrimony and division" and then generated buckets of the stuff over the next four years (low-lighted by his own impeachment). George H. W. Bush declared in 1989 that his presidency would mark "the age of the offered hand," only to be showing his opponents the back of his by 1992 (calling the Democratic-controlled Congress an institution of "PACs, perks, privilege, partisanship and paralysis").
In other words, the whole "let's be nice" idea has been floated before. And it forms a dubious backdrop against which Mr. Obama -- who wallpapered his campaign with calls for a "new politics" -- will deliver his own call for comity, cooperation and "coming together" next week.