02/19/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Bush Hangs on to False Images in Farewell

I kinda hate to kick a man when he's down, but even in departing, our outgoing president managed to offer up another false image to make himself look a little better.

"You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made," Bush said in his farewell address on Thursday, "but I hope you can agree that I was willing to make tough decisions."

Well, no.

Tough decisions aren't born in certitude, easy ones are. When all your choices are framed in simple terms, when you adhere to a narrow set of principles that offer little need (or ability) to account for other realities or views, making decisions about weighty subjects like war, torture, or civil rights are easy. Tough decisions require a great deal of thought, the kind that doesn't rely on gut instinct or received faith but rather on evaluating the consequences of the options open to you. And then thinking about the consequences of those consequences. Sure, draw the line somewhere -- you can't assess until it's too late to act -- but at least give it some consideration.

Where the president spoke truth was when he said, "I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right." That's what he did. He did what he thought was right. It's easy to make a "tough" decision when you're guided by conscience and conscience alone. When someone leaves their wallet on the counter, my conscience tells me the right thing to do is to stop them and give it back. Not a tough decision. But when my country is threatened and someone tells me we can stop the threat by torturing people, maybe we ought to think a little bit before acting on our conscience's call to "protect the homeland!" What's the cost of torturing? Ask a 20 year-old soldier facing capture in Iraq or Afghanistan. Ask 30. What choices will some poor teenager in Pakistan make when one of the things in the back of his mind is that Americans torture his Muslim brothers? Complicated times call for complicated decisions, not easy ones.

The decisions Bush was talking about were hard only to the extent that some people -- OK a lot of people, most people -- didn't like the choice he made. It's not the act of making a decision that was hard for Bush; it was dealing the consequences. I'm not proposing ruling by polling. But what about thoughtful, truthful leadership? What made people mad, what resulted in this president's dismal approval ratings, were the bad choices he made, bad, unconsidered choices.

Children make choices that satisfy immediate wants. I want food, I want to win, I want that give it to me now. Choices are easy for kids, they satisfy an inner longing. Rules don't matter, equity doesn't matter. Consequences certainly don't matter. Bound by instinct and dubious ideology, this administration governed like a collection of third graders.

Given the mess they left us, it's kind of ironic that the cleaning up is left to someone a generation younger. But we've see how instinct served us and made the not-so-hard hard choice for a more mature, thoughtful, deliberative and approach.