WASHINGTON - It is not surprising in our confessional, therapeutic culture that the most pressing question for the president of the United States is whether he feels he messed up.
And wouldn't he like to unburden himself by sharing exactly how badly he messed up? Um, no, but thanks anyway
No fewer than five reporters at Tuesday night's press conference asked George W. Bush questions along those lines.
- How do you explain how you got it so wrong?
- Do you feel any personal responsibility for 9-11?
- What was your biggest mistake?
- Do you believe the American people deserve an apology from you?
- Have you failed in any way? Have you failed as a communicator?
Pundits have spent days analyzing Bush's responses, expressing nearly unanimous disappointment. It's as though the president's declination to crumple into a heap of self-loathing were a personal insult.
He won't apologize! He won't admit he was wrong! He won't kiss my "ow-ie!"
Well, of course he won't. For one thing - for which many of us are deeply grateful - Bush's feminine side is still in the closet. For another, what possible good would an apology do anyone, either a president during an election year or the United States during war?
Sitting in the back row of reporters in the East Room Tuesday night, I had a different reaction than, apparently, most others in attendance. All I could think as Bush rummaged through his memory bank for an answer was, the man is no dummy. He may fumble his words; he may stammer more than he should. His joke about wishing the reporter had submitted the "mistake" question in writing before the press conference fell flat in real time and flatter during replays.
But strategically, especially in the real world beyond the Beltway, his response was smart rather than evasive. I saw his fumbling as a stall while his brain scanned the consequences - three-inch boldface headlines next morning and John F. Kerry ads forevermore.
Bush apologizes for 9-11. Bush admits Iraq a mistake. Bush admits responsibility for 9-11.
The better joke would have been for Bush to say, "My biggest mistake is answering this question." Instead, he said something unfunny and true: "The person responsible for the attacks was Osama bin Laden. That's who's responsible for killing Americans."
And then, contrary to charges that he skirted the question, he in effect explained exactly what his mistake was: "The country was not on a war footing, and yet the enemy was at war with us."
That is an admission if not a confession. We weren't prepared. We were asleep at the wheel. We weren't paying close enough attention to clues that now seem obvious. And as the 9-11 commission hearings are making clear, our intelligence agencies were and are weak and, prior to 9-11, were uncommunicative by design.
We all know that pre-war intelligence on Iraq was flawed, though, again as Bush pointed out, it was widely believed to be true both by the United Nations and by Congress.
Meanwhile, it is mind-boggling that in the midst of war, anyone would want the U.S. commander in chief to tell the world he was wrong, mistaken and sorry. Obviously, mistakes were made. We were attacked and people died. Something went wrong.
As to whether Bush feels any personal responsibility, one need only look at the man. He makes Dorian Gray look like a Britney back-up dancer. His face betrays the exhaustion of days making life-and-death decisions and of nights dreaming with the ghosts of those who did his bidding.
Learning from our mistakes may prevent future catastrophes, but the immediate lesson is one that Bush has articulated clearly and repeated Tuesday night: "We must deal with gathering threats ... (and) go on the offense and stay on the offense."
And perhaps in the best quote of the evening: "They (the terrorists) can be right one time; we've got to be right 100 percent of the time in order to protect the country. It's a mighty task."
Bush then noted that "our government has changed since the 9-11 attacks. We're better equipped to respond; we're better at sharing intelligence. But we've still got a lot of work to do."
According to CIA Director George Tenet, we've got five years worth of work to adequately build our counterterrorism operations. It seems our energies might be better directed toward reducing that time than in exacting apologies that might make everybody feel better, but none so much as our enemies.