For Elton John, sorry seems to be the hardest word. But for George W. Bush the hardest word has always been "mistake." His difficult relationship with the M word stretches back many years and is bound up with his view of leadership, politics, the media and, yes, his ego.
Until now. The president's calculation about the M word has changed in recent days, yet few people seem to have noticed. The way his friends tell it, President Bush simply couldn't bring himself to admit to making a mistake—never mind drawing any lessons from one—in a 2004 press conference. That would have been, in his mind, politically damaging in the early stages of a presidential campaign. And it would have been red meat to an insatiably hungry press corps. Maybe so. But the president has spent several months hinting at mistakes, even spinning about mistakes, without really conceding one—until now. At the end of last year, the president started to recalibrate his language on the war in Iraq, expressing more candor about the security situation on the ground. Speaking at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Bush said: "The training of the Iraqi security forces is an enormous task, and it always hasn't gone smoothly." Judging from the way the speech was reported, you could be forgiven for thinking that the president had used all kinds of M words. In fact, it took until this week—during another speech on Iraq, this time to foreign-policy students in Washington—for the president to say this about the same topic: "We have learned from our mistakes. We've adjusted our approach to meet the changing circumstances on the ground; we've adjusted depending upon the actions of the enemy." Earlier speeches on Iraq mentioned the M word, but always in the context of someone else. Last week in Charlotte, N.C., Bush said it would be "a huge mistake" to pull troops out of Iraq, as his political opponents had suggested. Last month, at another Iraq speech in Washington, he said the Iraqis might make mistakes as they built their government. The president didn't exempt "America" from making mistakes. In February, speaking to the National Guard Association, he conceded that the torture and abuses of Abu Ghraib were "American mistakes." But they definitely did not qualify as "administration mistakes." His one concession to the M word last year was to put it in the mouth of Democrat Joe Lieberman, who has generally supported the war. "The senator says that mistakes have been made," Bush explained about an op-ed article the senator wrote in November. "But he goes on to say that he's worried about a bigger mistake." To Lieberman and Bush, that mistake would be withdrawal. Bush's embrace of the M word comes after his secretary of State took excessive heat for claiming—in the context of Iraq—that the administration had made "the right strategic decisions" but "a host of tactical mistakes along the way." Condoleeza Rice explained later, on her fraught trip to England last month, that she was using "a figure of speech" when she spoke of "thousands" of tactical errors. This isn't an observation of semantic trivia. The president's readiness to concede to a mistake—and do so explicitly—marks a watershed moment for his administration. It may be a statement of the obvious that will satisfy few of his critics and change nothing on the ground in Iraq. But it is yet another sign that the White House recognizes how its political fortunes have changed forever—and how public opinion has shifted against the war . As the president explained in his press conference in December, he felt he couldn't admit to a mistake because it would have sounded like he regretted the war. "I really felt like it was an attempt for me to say it was a mistake to go into Iraq, and it wasn't a mistake to go into Iraq," he explained. "It was the right decision to make." Perhaps, with no more elections ahead of him, Bush feels he has more leeway to speak freely. Or perhaps he feels he needs to reconnect with the public in ever-more-human ways. Either way, it's time for the press corps to demand something other than the M word. Maybe it's time to ask him to say sorry. Card's Swan Song
Three days before he is set to leave the White House, Andy Card took his final flight on Air Force One on Tuesday. The outgoing chief of staff traveled with Bush on a swing through the Midwest to promote the administration's Medicare benefit, ending with an appearance by the president at a fund-raiser for Rep. Jim Nussle in Iowa. On the flight from Des Moines to Washington, Card took a final walkthrough of the plane, where he has traveled by Bush's side for more than five years. He shook hands with the crew, thanked the Secret Service agents who regularly travel with Bush—and even popped into the press cabin for a final goodbye. "My final flight on the plane, guys," Card somberly told reporters, some of whom applauded. "It's really sad." According to the White House, Bush and other staff traveling on the flight celebrated Card's last flight by eating coconut cake and watching a slide show of photos taken of the top Bush aide during his tenure. Air Force One's crew gave Card a window from the plane inscribed with their gratitude and a jacket embroidered with the presidential aircraft's logo. As the plane made its final descent into Andrews Air Force Base, Card was given a prime viewing seat in the cockpit. Card's last day at the White House is scheduled for Friday, when he is set to be replaced by Office of Management and Budget Director Josh Bolten.