Britain Welcomes Bush
You couldn't make him up, and you don't have to. Like him or loathe him, George Bush is for real - and heading soon for a capital city near you. Rupert Cornwell introduces our celebration of the remarkable career of Britain's favourite US President
13 November 2003
Monarchs and their Prime Ministers enjoy many privileges not granted to their subjects. Clairvoyance, however, is not among them. For how were the Queen and Tony Blair to know in 2001, when they extended the invitation for President Bush to make his state visit next week, that two years later it would be shaping up as the most fraught and ill-timed exercise of its kind in living memory?
Simply put, the leader of the country that Blair insists is our closest ally is about to receive the most torrid reception ever to greet a foreign dignitary on British shores. It's predicted that up to 100,000 people will be out on London's streets to protest at Bush's presence. All police leave has been cancelled, and Scotland Yard and the US secret services charged with protecting the President are trying to agree how much of London should be sealed off to prevent demonstrators - and possible terrorists - from getting a sight of him.
But even if Bush, whose contact with the news is so assiduously filtered by his courtiers, gains little idea of the turmoil around him, his countrymen back home assuredly will. The treacherous French and spineless Germans are one thing. But in Iraq - as in most other things, the average American assumes - the British are our friends. Imagine the shock, then, when they see surging crowds, burning flags and (unless police step into ban it) a giant effigy of the Great Leader being toppled, à la Saddam, in Trafalgar Square.
It is not only Bush the Chicken-hawk warmonger and promoter-in-chief of the great illusion about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction who they will be denouncing. It is also Bush the ignorant, self-righteous Christian warrior, Bush the smirking executioner and Bush the believer in one law for America and another for everyone else. And, of course, Bush the "Toxic Texan", an image made flesh by the "ghost ships" bearing down on Hartlepool, whose US-produced contaminants will find a last resting place on Britain's unpolluted isle.
No man is ever quite as extreme as his caricature. But Bush comes closer than most, and not only Britons cannot abide him. In his own country, too, he is perhaps an even more polarising Presi- dent than Bill Clinton. Conservatives abhorred Clinton; but for the liberal half of an equally divided country Bush embodies everything to hate about the right. And the President's great betrayal only makes them angrier.
This, after all, was a President elected after the closest election in history - a President, indeed, who, but for the archaism of the electoral college, would have lost to Al Gore, who clearly defeated him in the popular vote. At first Bush made conciliatory noises, but his "compassionate conservatism" soon became a hollow joke. His administration is the most radical of modern times. It has rammed through huge tax cuts, and run up the biggest deficits in US history in the name of supply-side ideology. By tilting those cuts towards the very rich, he has widened the disparities of US society.
Rarely is there any serious attempt to engage with critics, just the fait accompli, and the implication that, in time of war, opposition is akin to giving succour to the enemy. Bush wants to pack the courts with doctrinal right-wing judges; if he could, he would roll back a woman's right to choose even further than the ban on partial birth abortion he signed into law last week.
And all this done with a certainty ill-befitting a man with scant knowledge of the world's complexities, and a quite scary lack of curiosity about what makes other people and other cultures tick. As the political writer Joe Klein put it in a Time magazine column just before the second Iraq war: "George W Bush lives at the intersection of faith and inexperience. This is not a reassuring address, especially in a time of trouble." No more reassuring is the secrecy with which he and his high command operate. Add that to Bush's aversion to press conferences and Republican control of both houses of Congress, and the Bush White House often appears beyond accountability.
Indeed, today's Washington has a whiff of Soviet ways; suffocating internal discipline, resentment of even reasoned, moderate opposition, and a refusal to admit even the tiniest error. For imperialists, read "evildoers". With their condescending "we know best" attitude, Messrs Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and the rest offer as close an impersonation of the Politburo as you will find. As was said of the pre-glasnost Kremlin then, so with the White House now: you know nothing, but understand everything.
Finally, there is Bush the buffoon. There is another reason for his aversion to press conferences: in anything but the most tightly scripted circumstances he is capable of saying anything. Sometimes it works fine, as at his father's state banquet for the Queen in 1991, when he boasted to her that he had embroidered his new cowboy boots with the phrase "God Save the Queen", before confessing he had been his family's black sheep. "Who's yours?" he then asked the sovereign, to the horror of his mother.
But he's President now. And if there's anything that jars with liberals more than his gilded, semi-accidental glide to the White House, it's his capacity to mangle the English language. In the US and Britain alike, the chattering classes don't know whether to laugh at Bush or loathe him. The antipathy is assuredly mutual. Is he dumb, Barbara Bush was once asked of her son. Yes, came the acid reply, "dumb as a fox".
With its kernel of truth, her remark only makes Bush's critics more furious. Far more than real but less familiar tyrants from foreign lands such as Nicolae Ceausescu and Jiang Zemin, who also have supped at Her Majesty's table, we think we know George Bush. We know he doesn't deserve to be where he is. And what could be more maddening than that?
Bush telegraph: selected presidential facts
In May 2001, Bush's government gave $43m to the Taliban.
Bush has never attended a funeral or memorial service for a soldier killed in Iraq.
In August this year, Bush took the second-longest holiday ever by a US president: 28 days.
Bush's 16-member cabinet is the wealthiest in US history, with an average fortune of $10.9m each.
As governor of Texas, Bush executed 152 prisoners.
Sixty-one people who raised $100,000 for Bush's 2000 election campaign have since been given government posts.
Nine members of Bush's Defense Policy Board sit on the board of defence contractors or are advisers.
Bush owns more than 250 autographed baseballs.
Bush has been arrested three times: for stealing a Christmas wreath from a hotel; for ripping down the Princeton goal posts after a Princeton-Yale game; and for drunk driving.
Bush infuriated the Russian media by spitting a wad of chewing gum into his hand before signing 2002's historic Treaty of Moscow with Vladimir Putin.
While appearing on the David Letterman show in 2000, Bush was caught surreptitiously cleaning his glasses on the jacket of the programme's executive producer, Maria Pope.
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