Bush bows out with a flourish: The President has marked his last days in office with success abroad and the graceful acceptance of defeat at home, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NOTHING, historians may one day write, became George Bush's presidency more than the manner of his leaving it. If so, that judgement will only partially reflect the achievements of his last weeks in the White House: the humanitarian intervention in Somalia and the signature on the most sweeping arms reduction treaty of the nuclear age.

At least as much, Mr Bush is earning plaudits for the style in which he leaves office. Maybe it is just the inborn ability of an East Coast patrician to be a good loser. But Mr Bush has combined activism and grace to produce what he promised amid the gloom of election night itself - one of the smoothest transitions that Washington can remember.

By common consent, the economic recovery on which he vainly insisted throughout the campaign has now come to pass. The fracas caused by his Christmas Eve pardoning of Caspar Weinberger and others in the Iran-Contra scandal has subsided. And the country that rejected him seems ready to forgive. For the first time since January 1992, his approval ratings are back above 50 per cent.

How different from the numbing trauma of the first days after his defeat. Drained and downcast, Mr Bush made clear to anyone who would listen that he would prefer to be done with the presidency at once, rather than subject himself to a futile interregnum that was 'ungenerous and too long - it takes two months, I'd be happy if it took two days'.

Physically, the loss still plainly marks him. Since 3 November he seems to have aged a decade. The face is lined and haggard, at last testifying to every one of his 68 years. But the lassitude has gone. The electorate may have passed its verdict, but an even more important judgement, that of history, still waits. Shortcomings on the domestic front may have brought his downfall; but in his chosen field of foreign policy, Mr Bush has found a second wind.

Other defeated presidents have had hectic finales - most obviously Jimmy Carter, who was negotiating the release of the embassy hostages in Teheran until his very last minute in office in January 1981. But that was essentially tying up loose ends. Mr Bush's exit is different.

Frenetic activity always was the hallmark of his presidency. But the five-day, 18,000-mile New Year's Odyssey from which he returned on Sunday night was not merely a valedictory lap of honour. Moscow and Start 2 may have been the wrapping up of unfinished business, but less so the stops in Somalia and Paris.

Both were part of an exquisitely delicate balancing act. Yes, Bill Clinton will have to decide what America does next in the Horn of Africa and Bosnia, Mr Bush was saying, but for 15 more days he still calls the shots. However, America's key allies need have no fears; even after he has gone, US policy will be in sound hands.

Little more than two months ago he was denigrating his opponent's patriotism at every turn, unfavourably comparing Mr Clinton's foreign policy expertise with that of his spaniel, Millie.

These days, however, he misses no opportunity to extol his successor's virtues - whether to King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Francois Mitterrand or Boris Yeltsin or, arguably most important of all, to the US military that awaits its new commander-in-chief with barely veiled apprehension.

At times, the process was painful and poignant. In Somalia, he spoke of his uncertain life beyond the White House. 'I don't really know what I'll be doing,' he told a group of marines. 'My problem is, I thought I was going to win, I didn't do any defence planning, you might say.'