So farewell then, Dubya. It was with tears in our eyes that we saw your final press conference yesterday, after eight tumultuous years, though in my case they were tears of appreciative laughter.
I defy anyone to watch one of those internet anthologies of Bushisms – the gaffes and bloopers of the outgoing president – without a sense of wonderment at his Prescottian battles with the English language. In his gift for surreal improvisation he resembles an unintentional Paul Merton, a linguistic dada-ist, armed with nuclear weapons and a worrying sense that God is on his side. No longer will the White House be inhabited by a man who blissfully jumbles Slovakia and Slovenia, who fears for the fate of the “Kosovians”, or who believes that the secret of Balkan stability is “to keep good relations with the Grecians”, with their lustrous black locks.
We say goodbye to the global strategist whose sunny optimism still persuades him that Japan and America have “had a peaceful alliance for 150 years” – something of a revelation, one imagines, to the people of Pearl Harbour or Hiroshima – and we say goodbye to the conservative thinker and moralist who simultaneously understands that “families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream”, and who yet finds compassion in his heart for the unmarried mother of two. “I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family,” he told her, and we can all attest to that profound truth, especially when they won’t keep still.
For eight years Dubya has been kicked around by the environmentalists. He has been blamed for his refusal to ratify the Kyoto treaty; and yet you could not say that he was impervious to criticism. “Goodbye to the world’s biggest polluter,” he said the other day to a startled Gordon Brown and Nicolas Sarkozy, and you could not accuse him of entirely lacking green credentials when he once proclaimed: “I know the human being and the fish can coexist peacefully.”
He has been accused of presiding over a financial disaster, but you cannot say that he doesn’t know what a budget is. “I know it’s a budget,” he observed to the nation. “It’s got a lot of numbers in it.” And he had a secure grasp of the concept of the balance of trade. “It is clear that our nation is reliant upon big foreign oil. More and more of our imports come from overseas,” he pointed out. His economic strategy was “to make the pie higher”. But how, apart from getting cheap Iraqi oil? Tax cuts were part of the formula, as he said: “A tax cut is really one of the anecdotes to coming out of an economic illness.”
The real answer, though, was education, as he reminded an audience in South Carolina: “Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?” And he was always eager to explain the attractions of books to young people who may have been less intellectually voracious than he was himself. “One of the great things about books is that sometimes there are some fantastic pictures.”
Above all, he understood the importance of being true to himself, and being straightforward, and he had his own special definition of the trustworthiness he offered the world. “Well, I say that if you say you are going to do something, and you don’t do it, that’s trustworthiness.”
It was this absolute conviction that if he believed something was right, then it must be right, that enabled him to shrug off the insults of his foes and point out that “they misunderestimated me”. And they did. He was elected not once, but twice; he made a huge and lasting impact on world affairs; and in spite of all these virtues he is currently in danger of going down as the worst president in the history of America.
A poll of US historians reveals that 61 per cent currently offer him that accolade. They deem him worse than James Buchanan, who presided over the drift to civil war; they rate him lower than the fabulously slothful Warren Harding; they rate him lower than Richard Nixon. When Dubya waves for the last time from the White House lawn, there will be a global fusillade of raspberries.
With his catastrophic war in Iraq, we will be told, he managed to discredit the idea of American democracy around the world and, by allowing the banks to get out of control, he has managed to officiate at the moral collapse of capitalism itself.
Those are the twin charges, and though his defenders will point out that there have been no terrorist attacks on America since September 11, and that he gave far more aid to Africa than Clinton, those are the charges that will stick. Dubya may plead that the final verdict on Iraq will take time, and that future historians may be kinder, but the overwhelming opinion of the British public is that he is a cross-eyed Texan warmonger who triggered the credit crunch.
And, therefore, without wishing to defend G W Bush, I want to enter an important qualification. Yes, he did lead the coalition to topple Saddam, and was, therefore, implicated in the loss of tens if not hundreds of thousands of lives. But at every stage he did so with the messianic support of Tony Blair, and the tacit approval of Gordon Brown; and when it came to persuading a reluctant public of the threat posed by Iraq, it should never be forgotten that the Labour Party and their spin doctors were far more ruthless and duplicitous than the White House.
And, yes, there is no doubt that the Bush administration, like the Clinton administration, is partly to blame for the sub-prime scandal.
But it wasn’t George Bush who allowed Northern Rock to collapse, a failure that preceded the collapse of Lehman’s; and it wasn’t Bushonomics that saddled Britain with the colossal borrowings that will so exacerbate the recession.
Whatever the charges that can be made against Bush they can be made, in spades, against the Labour Government. Bush may have beaten all comers in his joyful mangling of English, but you could not say that when it came to political ineptitude he was in a league of his own. Oh, no. For all his eight years in office, that premier league of incompetence was occupied by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 12 January 2009 under the heading, ‘George W Bush was not alone in the premier league of bungling.’]