The Hunt For A Contrite President

Caption President Bush gestures as he answers a question during the third and final presidential debate in Tempe, Ariz., Wednesday, Oct. 13, 2004.
This Against the Grain commentary was written by's Dick Meyer.

In a primetime news conference back in April, NBC News' White House correspondent, David Gregory, scratched a national itch.

"One of the biggest criticisms of you," he asked the president, "is, that whether it's WMD in Iraq, postwar planning in Iraq, or even the question of whether this administration did enough to ward off 9/11, you never admit a mistake. Is that a fair criticism?"

With that, an obsessive – or maybe compulsive – quest for presidential contrition was born, or at least became overt. The itch became a rash. It happened almost instantly.

My CBS News colleague, John Roberts followed up at the press conference: "Two weeks ago, a former counter-terrorism official at the NSC, Richard Clarke, offered an unequivocal apology to the American people for failing them prior to 9/11. Do you believe the American people deserve a similar apology from you, and would you be prepared to give them one?"

Time's John Dickenson came next: "After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?"

President Bush finessed the questions with something les than Augustinian confession. No apologies, no mea culpas.

But it was an unknown who has put Bush back on the Oval Office couch with such a vengeance in the final stretch of the campaign. At the second debate in St. Louis, a woman named Linda Grabel did it again, with all spotlights on full. "President Bush," she said, "During the last four years, you have made thousands of decisions that have affected millions of lives. Please give three instances in which you came to realize you had made a wrong decision, and what you did to correct it."

Bush didn't care to 'fess up and noted that "when they ask about the mistakes, that's what they're talking about. They're trying to say, 'Did you make a mistake going into Iraq?' And the answer is, 'Absolutely not.' It was the right decision."

Bush weaseled and the pundits wailed. The flaws that went into Bush's answer, wrote E. J. Dionne, "in brief, are the core reasons why polls suggest that undecided and independent voters are having a problem with this president. His tactic of never admitting mistakes is backfiring in light of events."

"This was a preposterous, dishonest answer," wrote columnist Richard Cohen. "It is not possible to like someone who cannot admit a mistake."

Well, I think my wife likes me. At least sometimes.

This was precisely the point of linguist and battle-of-the-sexes expert Deborah Tannen, who thinks Bush's handling of the Grabel Factor could doom him with women. "If women react to Mr. Bush's made-no-mistake tactic the way they react to it when it is used by men in their lives," Tannen wrote, "a majority may well be more angered than reassured. That's because it drives many women nuts when men won't say they made a mistake and apologize if they do something wrong."

There is a great and deep belief amongst Bush-haters and commentators that the president's perceived inability to admit mistakes and apologize is his fatal flaw, or at least the flaw that somehow proves once and for all that he is a man of low character and has a psychological profile poorly suited to be a competent player in history.

It is closely related to their feeling that Bush is intellectually incurious, which stimulates a conviction that he is a simpleton, which reminds of how much he mangles the English language, which leads to his religiosity, which ties into his basic Bubba-ness which, they think, is all an act anyway.

This great need to have Bush admit to mistakes and even apologize bewilders me. Bush's critics say they want him to demonstrate with words that he is not the kind of person they are utterly convinced he really is – numb, dumb and a bum.

Yet this desire for presidential confession is real and intense, even if it does embrace this contradiction. That's what I don't get.

Yes, I think Bush avoids responsibility when things go wrong and I find his self-certainty cocky and obnoxious. But it doesn't gnaw at me, partly because I discovered very few American politicians who don't share this trait. On that score, I'm jaded. British statesmen and Japanese executives resign to take responsibility; Americans fudge. Bush is no exception.

Bush shares many personal qualities with Ronald Reagan – narrow input on decisions, unalterable if factually wrong convictions, black-and-white vision, optimism and uber-confidence. Yet with Bush, the contrition gap is being used to exaggerate and caricature both Bush and people silly enough to like him.

A classic of this genre came in The New York Times magazine this weekend. In a piece called "Without A Doubt," Ron Suskind attributed to Bush an imbecilic and delusional "faith" in his confidence, "he clearly feels that unflinching confidence has an almost mystical power. It can all but create reality." Suskind argues that Bush's supporters must share this faith, the "deeper the darkness, the brighter this filament of faith glows, a faith in the president and the just God who affirms him."

I would suggest that reducing Bush and his support to this kind of insulting sociology helps the Bush-Cheney reelection immensely.

The contrition seekers do have a serious, reasoned counter to my points: with a war underway, the costs of mistakes and not learning from them are extraordinarily high. A president who cannot show the voters he understands this should be turned out. When lives have been lost on battlefields, presidents have a higher duty to level with the country.

Here Bush and his critics agree: it's all about Iraq.

And here, I've come to feel that Bush's words matter very little anymore -- precisely because the stakes were and are so high.

His critics, those driven most crazy by his recalcitrance, say they want the president to honestly announce that the case for war was based on errors and untruths, that he takes responsibility for them and deeply regrets their horrible toll.

Leaving aside the matter that the president doesn't seem to agree with this formulation: If Bush said such a thing, would his critics be satisfied? Would it absolve anything? Would it show character? Would it show he has learned from experience? Would it show that somehow he managed his presidency better than they thought?

I think not. It would change nothing. It would be more spin.

And his critics would call for his head even more loudly. The call for contrition is largely disingenuous in that regard. The apostles of apology aren't, as they often purport, looking for signs that Bush isn't the unreflective, unrepentant myopic they are convinced he is.

There is a more simple point.

Bush has a record in the White House: judge it.

Don't worry about if he was sensitive, earnest and humble about decisions he has made. Don't pretend that matters much. Don't put him on the couch. Desperately Seeking Sorry is a sideshow and, I think, a bit silly.

We now have the facts to be able to judge what he has done and not what he has said, or not said, about what he has done. That's enough.

Dick Meyer, a veteran political and investigative producer for CBS News, is the Editorial Director of, based in Washington.

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By Dick Meyer