OK, how many of you are going to miss the George W. Bush years? Can I see a show of hands?
There is little question that President Bush became an extremely valuable, if involuntary asset to Barack Obama's long march to the White House. I think Bill Maher was the first comedian I heard joke that President Bush messed up the country so badly that the voters felt they had to send in a black man to clean it up.
Ah, yes, maybe we can joke a little more easily about race, now that the country has elected a biracial American especially one who, while discussing his family's auditions for the next White House dog, joked about "mutts like me."
Lenny Bruce said humor is tragedy plus time. A lot of tragedy preceded the joy that Obama's landmark inauguration celebrates. The White House and the U.S. Capitol were constructed with slave labor, we are reminded by a new book, "Black Men Built the Capitol" by Jesse J. Holland. That's no joke.
Near the Mall that stretches in front of the Capitol to the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial, African-American slaves once were held in pens, ready for auction. Eight presidents owned slaves.
President George W. Bush quoted one of them, Thomas Jefferson, in his televised farewell speech: "I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past." To that Bush added, "As I leave the house he occupied two centuries ago, I share that optimism." Bush has good reason to be optimistic about the country. The American people are resilient and resourceful enough to survive all kinds of presidencies, even his.
Yet there is a lot that Obama can learn from Bush's past, if only to avoid taking the sort of plunge that Bush's approval ratings took from the great heights he achieved after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
First, presidents should encourage long-range thinking, not just short-term planning.
Toppling Saddam Hussein was easy. Everyone with any knowledge of our military capabilities knew that. Managing Iraq through its transition to self-government is hard. The result is a stain on Bush's record to rival the one that Vietnam left on our memory of Lyndon B. Johnson's years.
Second, certainty and clarity are admirable, but don't get too full of yourself to listen to opposing views.
Obama has shocked some of his fellow left-progressives with his outreach to conservative politicians, columnists and clergy. Bush was cordial enough to everyone, but not known to dine with liberals the way Obama did with conservative columnists at George Will's house recently. Imagine Bush inviting Jon Stewart or Arianna Huffington to tea? Not gonna happen.
Third, sympathy and empathy are not the same. Bush still seemed rather puzzled at his final presidential press conference by the backlash he received for his slow response to Hurricane Katrina. Bill Clinton's critics make fun of his "I feel your pain" line, but his sentiment is better than Bush's inaction, which seemed to tell people in distress that he didn't feel their pain at all.
Fourth, after hearing both sides and pondering the options, make up your mind. Bush, proclaiming himself "the decider," was good at that part. "Like all who have held this office before me, I have experienced setbacks," he said, almost like a benediction. "There are things I would do differently if given the chance. Yet I've always acted with the best interests of our country in mind. I have followed my conscience and done what I thought was right. You may not agree with some of the tough decisions I have made. But I hope you can agree that I was willing to make the tough decisions."
Agreed. He made the decisions, good or bad. But that's his job. Presidents get elected to make tough decisions and they're judged by how those decisions turn out.
Which leads to Bush's final lesson for presidents: Keep your sense of humor. Bush has said in his exit interviews that he thinks time will vindicate him, as it has for some other unpopular presidents. Could he be right? Humor is tragedy plus time. For now, I see mostly tragedy.