James Werrell

A moment of sympathy passes quickly

Something remarkable happened the other day. I almost felt sorry for George W. Bush.

The operative word, of course, is "almost." Any time I might reflexively feel pity for our commander in chief, I think of what has transpired over his nearly eight years in office, and the feeling goes away.

The occasion in question, however, was a speech Bush made as the battle raged in Congress to patch together an economic bailout -- sorry, rescue bill. Bush trudged down the driveway of the White House, made a brief comment while reading from notes, then turned around and walked back into the White House.

I don't recall anything specific he said. It was boilerplate about having to work together to do something to avert catastrophe, a pep talk with no pep.

A reporter shouted a question at Bush as the president turned to leave, but Bush ignored him. It was clear the reporter and Bush were just going through the motions.

Bush had appeared vexed and bedraggled. It was clear he would rather have been somewhere else and would have preferred to dump this problem in someone else's lap. He looked, in a word, pitiful.

But I was able to stifle that pang of sympathy. Bush, it seems, finally has dwindled to the point of irrelevancy, which is something I have been anticipating for a long time. This was not a time for pity but for a sigh of relief.

In a way, Bush's apparent willingness to just fade away is out of the ordinary for a president about to make his exit. Bill Clinton, during his lame-duck days as president, fought furiously but unsuccessfully to engineer a last-minute Israeli-Palestinian accord to enhance his legacy.

Even Richard Nixon, shamed and forced to resign, seemed stubbornly reluctant to release the reins of power even up to the moment he boarded a helicopter to carry him away from the White House. Bush, on the other hand, seems eager to leave, no doubt dreaming wistfully about getting back to his ranch in Crawford.

Maybe he has acknowledged to himself that his presidency has been a disaster and that any reprieve from future historians is unlikely. He will never be rescued by a changing historical perspective as Harry Truman was.

Bush's administration will be judged for its assaults on the Constitution, its conduct of the Iraq war, its delay in responding to Hurricane Katrina and now the economic meltdown. One debacle after another, with the last coming just a few months before his final day in office.

At least we can hope it's the last.

Some unbending Bush supporters will view that harsh assessment as partisan gloating. But 75 percent of Americans now hold the same view of the president.

In the Gallup Poll conducted last weekend, Bush's public approval rating reached a new low of 25 percent. This marks the lowest point of Bush's presidency and it stands only three points higher than the all-time low in the history of Gallup's post-World War II polling of presidential approval.

Only two presidents have sunk lower: Truman, to 22 percent in 1952; and Nixon, to 24 percent in 1974.

The real-world implications of Bush's miserable poll numbers were evident during the recent debate over the bailout bill. Despite Bush's dire warnings of economic doom and his pleas to approve the $700 billion bailout, two-thirds of House Republicans ignored him and voted against the bill.

Bush has no clout. He has become a non-entity, in fact a pariah within his own party. Republican candidates don't want him to campaign with them; the party's presidential candidate, John McCain, is running as the anti-Bush.

I once thought that when this moment arrived, when Bush finally earned the ignominy he so richly deserves, that it would be time to pop open the champagne and sing "Happy Days are Here Again."

So, why don't I feel happy?

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