Something rather odd is happening. On those increasingly rare occasions when the most powerful man in the world appears on the TV news, I am no longer filled with despair at the state of the world. It is not just that George W Bush will soon be out of the White House, to be replaced by a president who is brighter and abler than he is, but that a slightly embarrassing softening in my attitude towards the man himself seems to be developing.
There is suddenly something rather poignant about those little eyes, that regular-guy grin which even now never quite comes off, the never-ending struggle with language, the general impression of a computer-simulation whose slightly corrupted program is liable break down at any time.
Already, Bush has the air of someone from the past, a distantly remembered figure of recent history who pops up occasionally in documentaries. The desire of all three presidential candidates to move on at all costs from what has happened over the past eight years, to treat the Bush presidency like an embarrassing hiccough, has made the man himself look like the lamest of lame ducks, the ultimate yesterday’s man.
Only those of us who are particularly soft-hearted will actually be feeling sorry for George Bush right now, but I suspect that this time next year good-hearted liberals all over the world will be missing him.
In many ways, President Bush has been a comfortable presence. He made political engagement easy: all you had to do was to hate everything he stood for. It has now become almost obligatory for famous Americans, when interviewed, attending an award ceremony, or on tour, to deliver a passing kick in the direction of their President. For musicians, novelists, actors, singers, the Bush moment is now an essential part of their act.
I have lost count of the number of events I have attended over the past four years, from a reading by Richard Ford to a concert by the country singer Steve Earle, which have included a riff by the star about the terrible state of American politics. These remarks, utterly predictable and usually self-serving, are invariably greeted with thunderous applause.
It is an odd fact that a presidency so widely accused of stupidity has been the cause of stupidity in its opposition. Lazily convinced that anything Bush may have done is bad beyond question, liberal opinion no longer asks questions but merely basks in the warmth of its own moral virtue. Look into the smug features of Michael Moore. Watch, if you can bear it, the self-satisfied mugging to camera of Jon Stewart, the anchorman of the allegedly satirical American TV programme The Daily Show. Listen to the obedient laughter of the audience as a stand-up comic cracks another predictable anti-Bush joke.
It is time to recognise that the problem with the Bush years has only partly been to do with a disastrous President; the opposition has become increasingly unthinking and nasty, too. Hating Bush has made anti-Americanism fashionable. Political apathy and cynicism are positively chic. Political debate has been reduced to the level of bullying jokes about the way Bush looks or talks. It has deepened the division between us, the sophisticated liberals, and them, the unthinking chisellers and rednecks who supported Bush.
A time of unusual moral complexity has for the most part been reflected in such one-sided crowd-pleasers as David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Moore’s Fahrenheit 911. Only recently have films such as the superb In the Valley of Elah begun to address the events of the past five years with any degree of subtlety.
Bush may have made some terrible decisions but, as a politician, he had things to recommend him. All too human in his social and verbal clumsiness, he has offered the world a brief respite from those bright, shiny faces of the practised politicians who are worked so perfectly by the mighty party machines behind them. For all their talk of change, the presidential candidates represent a return to smooth, professional politics after an interval of sometimes hilarious, often catastrophic amateurism.
When Richard Nixon slunk away from public life, he snarled at the press, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around any more.” Bush, in many ways as discredited a figure, will doubtless leave as he arrived, with that stunned, gee-shucks-am-I-really-President? look on his face, but the message could be the same. For liberal opinion, he has been too easy a target over the past few years.
Perhaps it was good to have someone so fallible in charge for a while. Those who have bemoaned the age of spin-doctors and have complained that there is not enough personality in our leaders will at last understand that smooth, safety-first technocrats have something to recommend them.
The rest of us might even one day look back with fondness to the days when a normal, flawed human being was in the White House.