It had been one of the most enthralling days in American politics for years. In the morning, that veteran old Democratic trouper Senator Ted Kennedy enraged Bill and Hillary Clinton by reneging on a previous private agreement – and in front of a wildly jubilant audience of supporters of Senator Barack Obama at the American University in Washington, 75-year-old Kennedy bestowed the blessing of the Camelot clan on Obama, Hillary’s main rival for this year’s Democratic presidential nomination. In the afternoon, nine hundred miles south in Florida, the fight between the Republican frontrunners got even more down and dirty.
In the evening, though, we came back to reality with a thud. The forgotten man of American politics, the nation’s 43rd president, delivered his final State of the Union Address. They are always ludicrous rituals: even the most unpopular president is greeted with wild rapture by politicians of both parties, and for a brief 90 minutes or so is supposed to be able to able to bathe in the bipartisan adulation of a united nation.
But George W Bush’s last scheduled appearance before congress on Monday evening was the most muted, even melancholy, State of the Union Address I can recall. That triumphalist grin of old had morphed into a subdued and even wistful smile, as though it has finally dawned on Bush that his popularity ratings – which stood at 84 per cent after the 9/11 atrocities – are spiralling inexorably downwards, even into the twenties in some polls.
The eerie presence behind him of a once ubiquitous figure who has now almost totally disappeared from the nation’s political radar screens, vice president Dick Cheney, only added to the surrealism of the sad charade.
There was far more interest in Obama – sitting in the audience next to his new mentor, Kennedy – and in Hillary, defiant in resplendent red. But I glanced up at my Bush Countdown Clock the moment Bush started speaking, and it indicated a brutal reality: there were still 357 days, two hours, 50 minutes and 8.2 seconds to go before Hillary, Obama or one of their Republican rivals moves into the White House to replace the most disastrous US president in modern history.
Even Bush’s best speech writers have now deserted him, and that showed in the 59 minutes he was at the rostrum. The grand, sweeping assertions of how a Bush-led America would transform the world, bringing it democracy and everything else that was both good and American, had gone – replaced by far more feeble, forgettable lines like “we are spreading the hope of freedom”.
There were not even any of the traditional surprise guests – Hamid Karzai popped up in 2002 and four years later the American hero produced was Rex, a bomb-sniffing US army Alsatian dog injured in Iraq – and if any of this year’s Republican aspirants for the presidential nomination were hoping Bush’s final address might offer them some morale-boosting crumbs, they must have been sorely disappointed.
There were the predictable, constant interruptions of applause – but even they were more muted than usual. Bush seemed on auto-pilot as he read from his Teleprompter of how the “surge” in Iraq was working and “our enemies in Iraq have been hit hard.”
The spectre of al Qaeda, the invisible yet ever-present enemy constantly invoked by Bush and Cheney since 9/11, was predictably used yet again: “My fellow Americans, we will not rest until this enemy has been defeated.” Cue, of course, applause. “In the past six years, we’ve stopped numerous attacks,” he went on, “including a plot to … blow up passenger jets bound for America over the Atlantic.” That, I suspect, is a claim that will enrage certain people in MI5 headquarters in London.
Then there were the kind of ritualistic lines that Americans love but the rest of the world loathes – “the secret of our strength, the miracle of America, is that our greatness lies not in our government, but in the spirit and determination of our people” – and meaningless ones like “America opposes genocide in Sudan.” Meaning, I presume, that the rest of us lack this profound American insight and just love that genocide?
By the end of what seemed to be an ordeal for Bush, you began to feel almost sorry for America’s 43rd president. He seemed to have little awareness of just how serious the economic recession America now faces really is – throwing out “challenges” to the Democratic congress to act as though he, the mighty US president, is powerless to do so himself.
“The actions of the 110th Congress will affect the security and prosperity of our nation long after this session has ended,” he proclaimed, as though the actions of the 43rd presidency won’t matter a whit.
Sadly, though, they will. Embattled as he now is in his bunker and with fewer and fewer allies remaining to sustain his morale, even Bush himself now seems to have virtually given up hope for his own presidency. I suspect that he has now reached the stage where he, just as much as the rest of us, can’t wait for those 357 days to pass and for the 44th president to move into the White House and take charge. Goodnight, Mr President.