When George W. Bush won the 2000 presidential election and took office eight years ago, I was a senior in high school. I was naïve, an ambitious go-getter on the cusp of college and newness and a world of glorious uncertainty. Eight months after Bush’s inauguration, I went to Wheaton College to start my freshman year. I said goodbye to my parents, hello to my new roommate, and jumped right into the exciting new chapter in my life. The second week of school, 9/11 happened, and the world changed.
Eight years have passed since then. I have an undergraduate and graduate degree now. Some people I loved are now gone. Four Olympics have happened. I went to a few other continents. Our spirits have soared and been crushed. Some wars have started. Many babies have been born.
But not everything has changed. The winters are still cold, and it still snows. People are still dying from AIDS. Survivor is still on the air. Love is still the best and worst thing about existence. People are generally as determined and passionate about their own success in the world as they ever were. The Yankees are still the most loathed team in baseball.
This afternoon, a miraculous thing happened in New York City. A U.S. Airways plane took off into a flock of birds that got sucked into the engines. The plane then crash-landed on the Hudson River, and everyone survived. Normally everyone dies when planes crash into rivers. But thanks to the quick-thinking and calm action of pilot “Sully” Sullenberger, the plane landed in one piece. Everyone got out. For doing what he thought was the best thing in the moment, responding to an unpredictable disaster, the man is a hero.
A few hours later, to very little fanfare, President Bush gave his farewell address from the White House. I watched it online, and was rather moved. It was brief but eloquent, full of regret that wasn’t so much in the man’s words but in his eyes. And yet it was full of hope as well, full of optimism and kindness. For all the disasters of his presidency, the hate he’s endured, the low approval ratings, and everything else, the man was still standing. Still looking strong. I don’t think it’s hubris, and I don’t think it’s denial. I think it’s a testament to the fact that his well intentioned resolve and passion—however misguided or mismanaged it has been along the way—has never wavered.
Several moments of the speech touched me, but one in particular. In talking about 9/11 and how it impacted his presidency, Bush said this:
As the years passed, most Americans were able to return to life much as it had been before Nine-Eleven. But I never did. Every morning, I received a briefing on the threats to our Nation. And I vowed to do everything in my power to keep us safe.
For Bush, 9/11 became his eternal albatross. When most of us moved on, becoming complacent and forgetting that there have been no other terrorist attacks here since that horrible day, Bush has remained thoroughly influenced by the jolt that was 9/11, and for good or ill, he’s stuck to his mission to keep America safe. I think the legacy of George W. Bush will be that he was a man whose vision always exceeded his abilities. He was a president of ideas, of convictions, but in practice—because of personal flaws and professional failings—he could rarely turn his ideas into good. It’s a tragedy, yes, but things aren’t nearly as bad as they might have been. We’re still here. Hope remains.
Watching the plane crash coverage today in New York, and watching Bush’s farewell speech from Washington, there was a strange and poetic sense of deja-vu, of things coming full circle. The plane crash imagery, the FDNY and Port Authority rescue workers, the talk of heroism. It was as if we were back in September of 2001, in the “United We Stand” days when Bruce Springsteen and Toby Keith expressed the same sort of patriotism. It got me thinking about all the heroes of post-9/11 America who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the thousands who have died. That must haunt Bush the most.
I know a whole lot more about the world in 2008 than I did in 2001. I know how to do my own taxes, and I know how to drive a 15-passenger van. I know where to find a good pub in Cambridge, and I know how to post a video to YouTube. I know that I’m not as naïve as I once was, and not as cynical as I probably will be. But there are also some things I don’t know. I don’t know if the Iraq War was at all necessary. I don’t know if Obama will live up to the hype. I still don’t really know anything about cars.
Like everyone else, I’m still trying to figure things out. Like Mr. Bush and President Obama and Pilot Sullenberger, I’m just living one day at a time, dealing with things as they come and figuring out how best to respond. We can plan for the future, and we should. But by God, there will be birds.