How can President Bush redeem his stumbling performance at this week’s press conference?
Holding only the third prime-time press conference of his presidency, Bush faced a room of confrontational journalists, who, as a pack, asked surprisingly pointed questions on the heels of America’s toughest weeks in Iraq.
The president also faced a listening nation that wants straightforward answers about the government’s failure on 9/11, failure to find weapons of mass destruction, failure to find cheering Iraqi support a year after the U.S. invasion, and failure to have a legitimate replacement government to whom to hand over Iraqi governance in June.
Bush answered badly. He strung together often-used fragmentary phrases. He rambled away from some questions. He filibustered on others.
But none of his answers was as anemic and disheartening as those related to personal accountability. Four of the 15 questions concerned either responsibility or apology for mistakes.
Reporters asked: (1) “Do you feel a sense of personal responsibility?” (2) “Do you believe that there were any errors in judgment that you made?” (3) “Do you believe the American people deserve … [an] apology from you, and would you be prepared to give them one?” (4) “After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be?”
Bush expressed his grief. He talked about his emotional strain. He made excuses, such as “the country wasn’t on war footing.”
In one embarrassing moment, he said, “Hmmm. I wish you’d have given me this written question ahead of time so I could plan for it.… I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hasn’t yet.”
He added: “You know, I hope–I don’t want to sound like I’ve made no mistakes. I’m confident I have. I just haven’t—you just put me under the spot here and maybe I’m not quick, as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.”
Bush’s replies to these questions relate to presidential hubris—destructive pride that blocks critical self-reflection and hinders self-correction.
Rather than to admit failure and to offer a clear-cut apology, which in itself acknowledges failure, Bush dodged these concerns. He refused to own up to mistakes.
Redemption, however, is always possible, if he will revisit the most important philosopher in his life.
Bush credits Jesus with changing his life, confesses a personal piety and discloses that he reads the Bible daily.
What he needs to do now is to read anew the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), focusing on one of the beatitudes in particular: “Blessed are the meek.”
The word “meek” is incorrectly read as weak. Some biblical translations use the word “gentle.” Others use “merciful.” Still others use “humble.”
Meekness relates to a subdued strength of character, that ability to see one’s own limitations of knowledge and action. Meekness is not passivity or defeatism. Meekness means being willing to express humility and to act humbly.
Jesus said at the end of his sermon that those who hear and do his words are wise.
Bush would be prudent to tell the nation clearly and quickly that he failed, that he’s sorry for specific mistakes, and that he will do better.
Americans understand failure and know how tough apology can be. The nation will more readily accept and follow a leader with a contrite heart than one who is hardhearted and walks with a swagger.
Meekness can prevent Bush from falling due to pride.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.