President Bush came before the White House press corps for the last time on Jan. 12 to thank them for doing their jobs. This exercise was akin to thanking the sharks who ate you.
The president said he didn't always like the stories that were generated, "but always, the relationship, I have felt, has been professional." Walking in the footsteps of his father, he'd politely unfurled an obvious fib in a display of social graces.
Always professional? President Bush didn't draw any attention to Helen Thomas in the front row as he praised the media for their never-failing professionalism. Helen's accusatory rants at White House spokesman Ari Fleischer about the president's bloodthirsty ways were legendary, like this one in 2003: "Why does he want to drop bombs on innocent Iraqis?" She lectured Bush directly in 2006: "Your decision to invade Iraq has caused the death of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime." She wanted to know if the "real reason" he caused all these deaths and injuries was for oil, or for Israel.
The media's abusive coverage wasn't personal? Try Dan Rather, or Rather's old White House hand puppet, John Roberts (now anchoring at CNN). In 2004, Rather first ran the sloppy, error-ridden National Guard hit piece, never telling his audience the president's primary accusers were political opponents with personal and political vendettas. Then Roberts publicly and dishonorably mocked the First Lady for doubting CBS: "Laura Bush offered no evidence to back up her claim, and CBS News continues to stand by its reporting." That was a "Mission Accomplished" event for the entire media, which lapped up the CBS hit piece until the bloggers started to unravel it.
And yet, of course, there are many in the White House press corps who have dutifully churned out their stories for years and traveled the globe with the president in virtual anonymity, reporters just reporting -- and nothing more. That said, it's also true that the reporters who gathered daily in the briefing room were overwhelmingly Democrats who never really wanted Bush to be there when they preferred Al Gore or John Kerry. Many probably felt he was undemocratically imposed by the Supreme Court in 2000.
Republican presidents take a beating from the press and still praise them for their professionalism, even when some of them don't deserve it. Democratic presidents can be just the opposite: The media coverage is generally good, yet still they whine. Bill Clinton expected the royal treatment, and mostly received it. When he didn't, he was furious. (Remember him denouncing the "knee-jerk liberal press" in Rolling Stone?) President Bush received about a month of respect -- right after Sept. 11. Clinton was treated with respect by reporters even after he was impeached.
For eight years, President Bush rarely raised a peep of public protest against the media's partisanship (save his sneaky photo holding a copy of Bernard Goldberg's insider expose, "Bias.") Now, even as he praised the media's professionalism, his resentment at the inaccuracy of long-established liberal media templates erupted in his final press conference.
Bush grew agitated as he remembered the press pounding him for seeing Hurricane Katrina damage from the sky on Air Force One without landing in Louisiana. He said -- correctly -- that had he actually landed in Baton Rouge, it would have required police to leave the disaster scene to protect him, and reporters would have savaged him for that. No matter what the president did or didn't do, he was going to be attacked.
The president was also very animated in protesting the media's similar no-win approach to terrorist surveillance. After 9/11, the executive branch was excoriated by the press for having failed to make the al-Qaeda connections and prevent it all. "And then we start putting policy in place -- legal policy in place to connect the dots, and all of a sudden people were saying, How come you're connecting the dots?'"
Bush's media critics are crowing about his legacy lying in tatters. Bush responds with his stubborn confidence that history will vindicate his administration. But how to explain Bush's sudden interest in interviews? With only days left before the moving vans file out, he's decided to go public and publicly defend himself.
Why didn't he start doing this seven years ago, when it would have mattered?