It came when an audience member asked Bush the following question:
- GRABEL: President Bush, 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. Thank you.
BUSH: I have made a lot of decisions, and some of them little, like appointments to boards you never heard of, and some of them big.
And in a war, there's a lot of -- there's a lot of tactical decisions that historians will look back and say: He shouldn't have done that. He shouldn't have made that decision. And I'll take responsibility for them. I'm human.
But on the big questions, about whether or not we should have gone into Afghanistan, the big question about whether we should have removed somebody in Iraq, I'll stand by those decisions, because I think they're right.
BUSH: That's really what you're -- 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.
The Duelfer report confirmed that decision today, because what Saddam Hussein was doing was trying to get rid of sanctions so he could reconstitute a weapons program. And the biggest threat facing America is terrorists with weapons of mass destruction.
We knew he hated us. We knew he'd been -- invaded other countries. We knew he tortured his own people.
On the tax cut, it's a big decision. I did the right decision. Our recession was one of the shallowest in modern history.
Now, you asked what mistakes. I made some mistakes in appointing people, but I'm not going to name them. I don't want to hurt their feelings on national TV.
As Sam Rosenfeld (via Atrios) points out:
- Think about the only thing he pointed to as a mistake: appointments. That is to say, the only mistake he made is some other folks screwing up their jobs. Even his single mistake is someone else's fault. And then, the way he tried to tell the audience member that he knew the real reason she was asking her question -- that he knew the insinuation she was trying to make: "When people ask that question, they're really talking about Iraq". Who the hell is he to explain to an ordinary citizen what she meant by her own question? (And let's remember, the lady went out of her way to say explicitly to Bush that "you've made thousands of decisions as president that have affected millions of people," and then ask out of all those thousands of decisions what are three that were mistakes; how was that obviously a question about Iraq?) Bush's arrogance, his defensiveness, the insularity, the delusions -- it's all nicely encapsulated in that one answer.
The questioner -- seemingly a middle-class homemaker -- simply wanted to know if Bush could admit to having made mistakes. After all, most of us ordinary humans make them too, but we also tend to be acutely aware of them. That Bush was incapable of giving her a straight answer was incredibly revealing.
I also think Rosenfeld is on the money in pointing out that John Kerry missed a golden opportunity in the debate by failing to point out that Bush couldn't give her a straight answer. Because it's not the first time this has happened, of course.
Recall Bush's performance at one of his few lives press conferences earlier this year, on April 13:
- Q Thank you, Mr. President. In the last campaign, you were asked a question about the biggest mistake you'd made in your life, and you used to like to joke that it was trading Sammy Sosa. You've looked back before 9/11 for what mistakes might have been made. After 9/11, what would your biggest mistake be, would you say, and what lessons have you learned from it?
THE PRESIDENT: I wish you would have given me this written question ahead of time, so I could plan for it. (Laughter.) John, I'm sure historians will look back and say, gosh, he could have done it better this way, or that way. You know, I just -- 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 hadn't yet.
I would have gone into Afghanistan the way we went into Afghanistan. Even knowing what I know today about the stockpiles of weapons, I still would have called upon the world to deal with Saddam Hussein. See, I happen to believe that we'll find out the truth on the weapons. That's why we've sent up the independent commission. I look forward to hearing the truth, exactly where they are. They could still be there. They could be hidden, like the 50 tons of mustard gas in a turkey farm.
One of the things that Charlie Duelfer talked about was that he was surprised at the level of intimidation he found amongst people who should know about weapons, and their fear of talking about them because they don't want to be killed. There's a terror still in the soul of some of the people in Iraq; they're worried about getting killed, and, therefore, they're not going to talk.
But it will all settle out, John. We'll find out the truth about the weapons at some point in time. However, the fact that he had the capacity to make them bothers me today, just like it would have bothered me then. He's a dangerous man. He's a man who actually -- not only had weapons of mass destruction -- the reason I can say that with certainty is because he used them. And I have no doubt in my mind that he would like to have inflicted harm, or paid people to inflict harm, or trained people to inflict harm on America, because he hated us.
I hope I -- 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 as quick on my feet as I should be in coming up with one.
It's more than a little remniscent of Bush's recorded remarks last year in Tennessee (which wound up as the coda to Fahrenheit 9/11):
- "There is a saying in Texas and probably here in Tennessee "Fool me once (......---long pause, deep thought---.... ) shame ... on me. (another pause) Fool me twice ... (brief thought, apparently sudden insight) can't fool me twice ... won't get fooled again!"
As Mark Crispin Miller put it:
- Yes, and the reason why he couldn't say it is that Bush could never in a million years say "shame on me." If you watch that moment carefully, you can see that as soon as he realized that he was going to have to say "shame on me," he went to pieces. He quickly had to quote The Who instead: "Won't get fooled again." He could never admit fallibility because he is without a doubt the most stiff-necked, self-righteous and opinionated President we've ever had. For him, it is a point of pride that he can't change his mind. He sees total rigidity as a sign of "character" -- much like Nixon, his true spiritual father.
Unlike the last debate, we didn't see Bush physically get his back up and become the petulant, arrogant man we saw revealed behind the mask. But in this case, it was clear he did it verbally. And what it demonstrated, above all else, is the kind of unthinking self-righteousness that inevitably breeds the incompetence that has become this administration's hallmark.