"Yo, Blair!"

Godfrey Hodgson
18 July 2006

The president of the United States is a "bonesman" –a member of Skull & Bones at Yale University, the least secret secret society in the United States. But his general conversational style, as revealed with embarrassing clarity by a microphone left open at the G8 summit in St Petersburg, is less smart Yale than frat boy, Texas A & M, circa 1955.

More serious is the total lack of intellectual clarity, curiosity, and seriousness George W Bush revealed. The incident confirms beyond argument the accuracy of earlier accounts of his mental incapacity that at the time appeared scarcely credible. It is not, after all, as if this man was forced to take responsibility for the peace of the world. He wanted the job, and having won it, admittedly in questionable circumstances, he asked for it and won it again. Yet he seems utterly bored by what the job requires.

A fascinating interview with Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury cartoon strip, includes a memory of his fellow Yale student, George W Bush:

"He could also make you feel extremely uncomfortable. He was very good at all the tools for survival that people developed in prep school – sarcasm, and the giving of nicknames. He was extremely skilled at controlling people and outcomes in that way. Little bits of perfectly placed humiliation. "

("Doonesbury goes to war", Rolling Stone, July 2004)

After the initial greeting, the first thing Bush said to Tony Blair was: "You're leaving?" Two explanations are possible. Either he wanted cover for an early departure of his own, or he thought it was cool to pretend to be bored by an event to which the whole world looks for leadership. Neither explanation is acceptable.

Tony Blair comes out of this exchange even worse than Bush, as the toady looks worse than the bully. Standing while his lord and master sits, stammering in his eagerness to take advantage of this brief moment in the Presence, he comes across as abject, stripped of all personal dignity in his desire to please, like a courtier at some brutal baroque court.

More seriously, he is caught on tape literally asking the permission of the president of the United States to undertake a vital diplomatic mission as prime minister of the United Kingdom. It has long been clear that Blair has decided to make the maintenance of the best possible relations with the US president as his top foreign-policy priority. It is hard to argue with that. The United States has been Britain's essential ally and protector since the middle of 1916. It would be foolish not to do everything possible to maintain that alliance. Even the catastrophic decision to go to war in Iraq without broad international support can be justified (though I would not defend it) as demanded by the supreme importance of the relationship with Washington.

But it is one thing to give the highest priority to the alliance, quite another to accept a role as one courtier among many at the court of George W Bush, and inevitably a less significant one than such luminaries as the man (Alberto Gonzales, then the White House's chief counsel) who was promoted to attorney-general after calling the Geneva conventions "quaint". The prime minister was clearly seeking the president's permission to go to Israel and clearly accepting that Condoleezza Rice's visit would be more important than his own. "Obviously if she goes out, she's got to succeed, if it were [or perhaps that was "as it were"], whereas I can go out and just talk".

The only way of interpreting the comment is that the prime minister, the British people's elected leader, is hoping to be sent to Israel because it doesn't matter what he says. There may be truth in that. But by saying this to a foreign leader, even one as friendly to him as George W Bush has shown himself to be, Blair humiliates himself, and so humiliates the citizens of his country.

What he and Blair need to do, thinks the president – with all the subtlety of a 21st-century Talleyrand or Bismarck, is "to get Syria, to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over". It is hard to know whether to laugh or to cry. The most important country in the world – the "indispensable nation", as Condoleezza Rice's predecessor but one, Madeleine Albright, rightly called the United States, the country once led by Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D Roosevelt and Harry Truman, and indeed by this president's father, who was at least a gentleman – is now spoken for by this man.

George W Bush is revealed as thinking in the slack-jawed, one-sided, casually brutal tones of a stereotyped hillbilly. Or perhaps he is merely pretending to be stupid because he thinks his countrymen and countrywomen are happier with the language and manner of a fraternity-house bully.

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