Like the elderly friends brought together by shared bereavement in Graham Swift's Last Orders, but without a shred of the charm or gentle wit, three old chums met again this week, and the world looked on with weary indifference. The death that reunited them was symbolic, unlike the countless literal deaths that united them before. They were there to mark the passing of George W Bush from office, although not from power, which drained away long ago.
Still, even with what the Three Amigos' leading clichéphobe would know as the hand of history gripping Barack Obama's skinny shoulder, and with Inauguration fever gripping us all, yesterday's man had to go through the motions. Go through them he did, with all the relish of one wading through sewerage in the hopeless hunt for a jewel of salvation carelessly dropped down a drain.
To his credit, Mr Tony Blair struck a mildly hangdog look as the Presidential Medal of Freedom was placed around his neck. Erstwhile Australian prime minister John Howard, the puniest third of the unholy trinity of self-righteous war criminals, could manage no such nod to self-awareness.
Imported primarily to justify Mr Bush's petty decision to keep the Obamas from using the White House guest quarters traditionally reserved for a President-elect, Mr Howard beamed with such unguarded ecstasy that one had to fend off a stiletto stab of admiration for the thickness of his skin.
Had this trio then mimicked Mr Swift's characters by propping up the West Wing bar and chewing over the fat of past adventures, you can imagine the heights of self-justificatory delusion they'd have scaled in reassuring one another that history will eventually ride to their rescue.
This had been a central theme of the President's valedictory press conference the previous day, a gathering laden more with mutual indifference than with any shared sense of poignancy. "There is no such thing as short-term history," he told the assembled. "You have to wait a long time for that." Precisely how long he didn't say. Perhaps he had in mind the moment he is ushered through the Pearly Gates, and a basso profundo celestial voice booms out: "George, son, you did an absolutely bang-up job. Now come and sit at my right hand."
In its nebbish way, this press conference made an intriguing study, as much for the reaction of the reporters as the reflective wisdom Mr Bush shared with them. So few had summoned the will to attend, in fact, that aides had to fill the seats with staffers and interns.
If that was a startling show of contempt in a country that venerates the office of president, even if not the individual, to the nth degree, equally striking was the boredom and discomfort visible on the faces of those who did turn up to hear Mr Bush flit from half-hearted admissions of mistakes (Mission Accomplished was a little premature) to insincere expressions of goodwill to his successor (Obama is a better orator, he bragged, as if mastery of the language is a fatal flaw); from laughable self-defence (he didn't land Air Force One in post-Katrina New Orleans because he didn't want to divert police from more urgent work) to a gloriously demented comparison with a predecessor.
"Some people are angry," he peevishly opined in mystification at his treatment. "I don't know why they get angry, why they get hostile." Then again, he added, Abraham Lincoln also inspired "high feelings", so what can you do?
Well, yes, you thought, there was that small matter of the Civil War when Old Dixie came over a little umbraged with Abe. Even so, it was hard to be convinced that the direct comparison between the president who fought to end slavery and the one who left impoverished African Americans without water in the football stadia of New Orleans was brilliantly chosen.
For the millionth time since the Supreme Court ratified the coup d'etat of 2000, you found yourself gazing at this creature – never so cloyingly self-pitying as when railing against self-pity, struggling all the while to prevent himself gurning his distaste for his questioners – in rank disbelief. How did this happen? How did a man devoid of any evident interest in politics and the exercise of power journey from drunken business failure to the Oval Office in so few years? Can he really be as dense as the sub-Prescottian aphasic lapses suggest, or was he right to tell us, in supposedly endearing self-parody, that we misunderestimated him? And how, above all, can he have spent eight years in the planet's mightiest job, unleashing untold mayhem abroad and at home, without leaving any firm impression of who he is and what, if anything, he believes?
This is the truly extraordinary thing about Mr Bush, just as it is about Mr Blair. Robert Harris wrote a brilliant roman à clef about the latter called The Ghost, predicated upon how he left no firm imprint of his character and values, and within days of leaving Downing Street might never have existed at all.
With Mr Bush, who has spent his final months blinking confusedly at the financial apocalypse that he ushered in but was powerless to contain, the shroud of ectoplasmic irrelevance descended while he was still technically running the show. For him, with that hideous preppy grin of casual malevolence, The Ghoul might make a better title. But the failure to stamp any stronger, deeper sense of himself on the public consciousness than the caricature is the same.
Does he wake up at 3.30am moaning from self-recriminatory nightmares, or is he as insulated from doubt as he seems? Does he honestly believe that he has a spiritual red phone connected to the Almighty, or was this merely posturing designed by Karl Rove to whip the Bible Belt into the voting booths? Alongside the noble urge to improve Halliburton's balance sheet, was there any conviction that forcing an ersatz version of democracy on Iraq was a moral imperative, regardless of the human cost? Did he even have a say in the decision to invade, or was he as much Dick Cheney's Labradoodle as Mr Blair was his? Can he really have thought that resolving Israel's assault on the Lebanon required nothing more challenging – to borrow from that "Yo Blair" keynote address – than "getting Syria to tell Hezbollah to stop doing this shit?"
Perhaps we will never know. Certainly Mr Bush isn't about to give away any insights. He's had enough of the Klieg lights, he told the torpor-ridden reporters, and will keep his own counsel when he returns to Texas next week to make Laura's morning coffee and look at himself in the mirror in the certainty that history will treat him kindly.
And with that, having thanked those he despises for "working with me", and having invited God to bless them, he abruptly exited stage right to applause so muted and staccato that it verged on a slow handclap. He ended not with a bang, barely with a whimper, and nothing more became the catastrophic, preposterous and overwhelmingly amorphous presidency of George W Bush, you felt, than the manner of his going.Reuse content