In May 1994, Hunter S Thompson wrote in a poison-pen eulogy for the recently deceased President Richard Nixon that he represented "that dark, venal and incurably violent side of the American character that almost every country in the world has learned to fear and despise." Amidst a time when most of the mainstream press was playing up the rehabilitated post-Watergate Nixon, Thompson pointed out - with his usual wit and insight - that this man had undermined the constitution and led to one of the most sordid chapters in American politics.
I could not help but think of these words when I watched George Bush's last press conference as president. It was a classic Bush performance: defiant, incurious, secretly annoyed, superficially jocular but full of reproach for those who questioned him. He spoke of a few obvious regrets, like the "Mission Accomplished" banner, but otherwise admitted no serious mistakes. In contrast to the nearly 75% of Americans who are glad to see the back of him, President Bush seemed almost nostalgic and concluded by saying that he had treated the press corps "with respect" and that he was "disappointed" by the tone of partisan bickering that marked his time in office.
Forgive me for taking issue with the man as he heads out the door, but I cannot let him get away with these parting words. Historically, Bush and Nixon are in a tight race for being the president who treated those who criticised them with the most disrespect. Throughout his presidency, Bush belittled the press, often with cruel fraternity-boy nicknames, to remind them of precisely who was in charge. To his dissenters in the press and elsewhere, he was intolerant and rarely resisted an opportunity to paint his political enemies as the enemies of freedom. Though he professed to respect those who expressed differing opinions, his actual style of governing was to embrace take-no-prisoners partisanship and to heap scorn on whoever did not see things his way. His presidency was the very antithesis of the concept of "respectful dissent."
He was up to his old tricks at this last press conference. One of Bush's favourite tactics is to accuse anyone who criticised him of either bad faith or of ungratefulness for the sacrifice of others. One would think he'd have given up this tactic after his ridiculous "you forgot Poland" outburst to John Kerry in the 2004 presidential debates. But to my astonishment, here it was again during his last press conference, in response to a question about his handling of Hurricane Katrina:
Don't tell me the federal response was slow when there was 30,000 people pulled off roofs right after the storm passed. I remember going to see those helicopter drivers, Coast Guard drivers, to thank them for their courageous efforts to rescue people off roofs. Thirty thousand people were pulled off roofs right after the storm moved through. It's a pretty quick response. Could things have been done better? Absolutely. Absolutely. But when I hear people say, the federal response was slow, then what are they going to say to those chopper drivers, or the 30,000 that got pulled off the roofs?
It's a clever rhetorical move, to equate criticism of Bush's response to Hurricane Katrina with criticism of those working the disaster management response. But it is intellectually dishonest to imply that there is no criticism of policy without criticism of the poor souls responsible for implementing it.
Even worse, at his last press conference, Bush could not resist using the events of September 11 to justify himself. Asked how he could defend America's post 9/11 record - one which includes an unnecessary war, torture, and Guantánamo Bay - Bush raised his voice and leaned over the podium to lecture the assembled reporters: "Do you remember what it was like right after September the 11 around here? In press conferences and opinion pieces and in stories - that sometimes were news stories and sometimes opinion pieces - people were saying, 'how come they didn't see it, how come they didn't connect the dots?' Do you remember what the environment was like in Washington? I do."
This willingness to engage in bullying and scare-mongering to enforce silence among his critics is the cornerstone of Bush's unfortunate legacy. Throughout his time in office, Bush reverted to the terrifying prospect of an attack on the US whenever he was in trouble with critics on issues of national security. And in a nutshell, this is why he failed: he never realised that the threat that terrorists posed to the United States was not just about another attack, but about the possibility that the government might engage in the kind of overreaction which disfigured American society. If the US stops attacks on the homeland, but at the cost of torturing people in secret prisons, what kind of victory is it? If the president can only keep America safe by trying to scare domestic critics into acquiescence, what kind of democracy will we have left? Here again, Bush was much like Nixon - so concerned about losing a war over there that he ignored the political and moral costs that his national security policies had at home.
Finally, it is his capacity for self-righteousness and self-delusion which makes President Bush such a fascinating and maddening character to watch. This was also on full display as Bush insisted - contrary to much of the opinion polling done over the last eight years - that much of the world still respected the United States, even if the writers and "opiners" don't like him. This was classic Bush: if the facts do not fit his preferred interpretation of events, he simply denies them, a pattern seen in his response to global warming and the torture scandal. This time I couldn't help but find it sad that Mr Bush has still not realised that it was this yawning gap between fact and his imagined reality that made so many Americans desert his party in the last election.
What we are witnessing is the last desperate attempt of President Bush to cover his mistakes and leave the office on a high note. But the American people should not let him get away before we have tallied up the bill for the vast wreckage of his presidency. Not many presidents have managed to start two wars, to mismanage the response to a national disaster, to tarnish America's image around the world and to wreck the global economy in just eight years. Like Nixon, Bush is guilty of undermining America's proud tradition of dissent and free speech and of using the cover of patriotism to justify the unjustifiable. And no matter how hard he tries to cover over his basic cruelty with graciousness in these last few days, we should not forget that, like Nixon, he brought out the darkest and most venal part of the American character for the world to see.