Commentary: A good question for Mr. Bush

The year 2008 ended dismally enough without a parting apologia from the Bushes.

In recent days, besides fretting over where their retirement funds may have flown or when the axe will fall on them at work, Americans have been subjected to our soon-to-be ex-president opining that perhaps his administration has not been as disastrous as most people think.

First Lady Laura Bush and Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, also went on TV to defend their man. Rice said that historians continuously revise their estimation of former presidents and that in, say, 50 years Bush may be more highly regarded.

Watch out, James Buchanan, W isn't even dead and supporters are making the case that he's only the 42rd worst president.

As for George W. Bush himself, he told Charles Gibson of ABC News recently that his sole regret is that he wasn't given better intelligence about Saddam Hussein's weapons stockpile.

That may rank aside the "Mission Accomplished" banner and his "heckuva job" salutation to FEMA chief Michael Brown as among the most ironic utterances of this administration. It's widely understood that the White House ignored or suppressed intelligence about Iraqi weaponry.

Bush would be better off not drawing attention to his record. Even his few notable achievements, such as increasing U.S. aid to combat HIV/AIDS in Africa, serve to remind us of all that went badly – or undone – the past eight years.

Indeed, it's hard to think of an area in which Bush and his minions didn't screw up. They outed CIA agent Valerie Plame, purged U.S. district attorneys for partisan purposes, censored or distorted scientific evidence that conflicted with their agenda, failed to monitor the food we eat and the toys we import, were pathetically late in understanding either global warming or the energy crisis, waged the "war against terrorism" in the wrong country and failed to anticipate the worst economic crisis in 75 years, and that's just for starters.

And Bush's only regret is that he didn't have better intelligence about Iraq? He's like the man who murders his parents then asks for mercy on grounds that he's an orphan.

The president's self-defense takes me back to Nov. 17, 1973, when, as a young editor, I heard Richard Nixon proclaim, "I'm not a crook" before the Associated Press Managing Editors annual meeting at Disney World.

Earlier we had been told Nixon, embattled over the Watergate scandal, would accept questions from APME members but not from the Washington press corps, whose members were corralled to the side of the room. For good reason, Nixon didn't want to field questions from reporters who closely followed constantly changing developments in the biggest public scandal in decades.

His strategy worked. APME President Dick Smyser, a Tennessee publisher, stepped to the microphone and asked Nixon about the heavy demands on his high office. "To what extent do you think this explains possibly how something like Watergate can occur?" Smyser asked.

Nixon slammed that softball. He talked about everything but Watergate -- the Vietnam War, his trips to China, even his personal finances -- before concluding: "People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. Well, I'm not a crook."

Less than nine months later and facing almost certain impeachment, Nixon would resign in disgrace.

The morning following Nixon's appearance at Disney World, someone asked Abe Rosenthal, then managing editor of The New York Times, what he would have asked of Nixon had he been given the opportunity.

Rosenthal, who would have made a credible Old Testament prophet, thought for a moment, then ticked off the names of a dozen or so administration officials who by then had been suspended, indicted or resigned.

Rosenthal paused a moment, then asked in a thunderous tone, "How in the name of God, Mr. President, did this happen?"

It's still a darn good question.