Goodbye to the Superman president: When George Bush departs, with him will go America's post-war view of its international role, says John Lichfield

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The Independent Online
The dominant cartoon figure of the Fifties (America's Golden Age) wore a cape and walked through walls. In the Nineties, an age of unaccustomed US self-doubt, the most popular cartoon character is a feckless eight-year-old boy with a strange haircut and a catapult sticking out of his trousers.

President Bush, who watches a lot of television, though not as much as Ronald Reagan, once tuned in to Bart Simpson for a few minutes (Mr Bush apparently drives his wife crazy by constantly jabbing the channel changer). The next day, the President complained to his staff that he could not understand what The Simpsons was supposed to be about.

A president is not a prime minister. Successful presidents contrive not just to manage the country but to symbolise their age and embody the nation's changing sense of self. President Reagan did not bother too much about the managerial part of his job, but, through most of the optimistic Eighties, he accomplished the second, symbolic part of the job rather well.

In the chastened, anxious, introspective United States of the Nineties, George Bush, the faithful servant of the status quo (whatever that happened to be), managed to become at once the most powerful man in the world and an anachronism.

'Bush will be like (Gerald) Ford,' Richard Nixon told friends after Bill Clinton's victory in November. 'As soon as he leaves town, he'll no longer matter. I've been gone for 20 years, but I still matter.'

Up to the last days of his failing re-election campaign, George Bush would say: 'We are the United States of America, the kindest, fairest, gentlest, most decent nation on earth.' Mr Bush was aware of the civil war in America's inner cities; the failing education system; the falling real wages of the middle class; the growing problems in obtaining health care ; the deficit; the crumbling infrastructure. But he seemed convinced that, at root, all was for the best in the best of American worlds (or, if not, then that was what the electorate still wanted to hear).

If George Bush is remembered for anything (Gulf war and Bushisms apart), it will be as the last member of a dynasty of presidents spanning America's imperial age (beginning circa 1948). The leap to Bill Clinton on Wednesday is not just a break with 12 years of Republicanism. George Bush will be the final president from the generation of Americans who grew up in the 'Good War' against fascism; who received a neatly drawn sense of global mission from the chess game with Moscow; and who entered politics while America bestrode the post-war world (possessing, in the Fifties, half the world's economy and two-thirds of the world's machinery).

They were the first young American politicians to think in international terms. But mostly what they thought was that the world should be more like America. This was as much true of John Kennedy as of it was of Richard Nixon.

It is conventional to say that the Bush presidency was a success abroad and failure at home. But despite the freneticism of the last four years (three military interventions on three continents), he has dodged as many questions about America's international role as about its domestic strength and unity. While talking of a 'New World Order', Mr Bush had extended the habits of the Cold War.

The Bush Doctrine has been a cocktail of limited interventionism, sanctimonious rhetoric, secretiveness and cynicism (arming Saddam Hussein; drinking champagne with the Chinese after Tiananmen). Unfortunately, the implosion of the Soviet Union has removed the great all- unifying and all-justifying explanation for contradictions in US policy.

In his pre-Gulf war address to the nation, Mr Bush said, modestly, that he was shaping the world's future for the next 100 years. In reality, the Gulf war could shape nothing much. The post-Soviet world was not full of stage villains who lived in strategically important, and conveniently empty, deserts, but full of intertwined nations and tribes and clans who wished to murder each other at close quarters.

Mr Bush was probably right to stay clear of Bosnia. But his insistence on describing all the more manageable actions that he has undertaken as 'God's work' (the latest being the scattered bombing of the southern Iraqi desert) increases the pressure for moralising interventions of other kinds. Or does God's Work come only in small, relatively risk-free parcels?

The Somalian excursion, presented as Mr Bush's final gift to the world, is in danger of demonstrating the outgoing President at his Quixotic worst.

A marine has been killed; the mission is in danger of degenerating into aimlessness; there is no evident strategy for either an effective continuation of the US presence or an orderly departure. The grumbling has started at home. Mr Bush likes to make the United States sound like a kind of international charity with weapons. He has made it into a kind of global, volunteer fire brigade, willing only to tackle small fires (Gulf war apart).

This is a dangerous blind alley. It will be left to his successor to devise foreign, and domestic, policies better fitting a non-heroic age. Mr Clinton grew up at a time when America's divine right to shape the world was not automatically accepted. In retrospect, the most remarkable thing about Mr Clinton's election victory was that he won by suggesting that the US had got it all wrong: that the right models were mostly foreign models, especially Japan and Germany's willingness to think and invest strategically in education, training and the industries of the future.

This is a significant shift in attitudes. It is impossible to say whether Bill Clinton's accession marks the end of Republican domination of the White House. It may be another interregnum, like the Carter years. But it is reasonable to predict that the next Republican president will have a more realistic, a more modest, a less rhetorically high-flown, even a, dare one say it, humbler view of American capabilities and obligations, international and domestic. He, or she, may sound rather more like Bill Clinton than George Bush.

(Photograph omitted)