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An era is ending. President Bush is losing his last best friend in the international arena, the man who explained Bush's own motives and actions better than he has been able to do.
Tony Blair's last Rose Garden news conference with Bush, ending with Blair's eloquent, impassioned defense of Iraq policy as a necessary front in the war against terrorism and a plea for helping Africa develop and for action on global warming, was a stark reminder that now it will be just Bush out there, speaking for himself.
Bush needed Blair and made clear he feels a bit bereft as Blair forcibly exits June 27 as the British prime minister, a political victim of his support for Bush and the war in Iraq. "I know the world needs courage," Bush said, looking wan as he said he honors Blair's courageousness.
Blair in turn praised Bush, admiring his leadership, calling him a friend, "unyielding, unflinching and determined." (He did not actually say "stubborn.")
It was a moment for nostalgia but also for new worry about this waning presidency. A lot can and will happen between now and January 2009.
Bush cannot muster the rhetoric or passion he needs to explain to his fellow citizens or the world why he continues to send young men and women to Iraq to die in a civil war that is killing thousands of Iraqis. Every time he attempts to justify the war, he comes across as irritatingly petulant.
A few days earlier he talked about how he is going to order a burst of effort to spur vehicle fuel efficiency, but he was uninspiring and almost listless. Nothing will happen until the end of his presidency, he said, forgetting that his own vice president ridiculed energy conservation from the beginning of his first term when pushing energy independence could have meant something.
After months of searching and being rejected, Bush has appointed a "war czar," a general who could not tell his commander in chief "No, sir, I'm sorry, but I would be foolish to take such a thankless job, a job without authority."
Meanwhile, there's more news about Bush's assault on civil liberties. We now know that there was almost a Marx Brothers night in March 2004 as a White House chief of staff, an acting attorney general and a White House general counsel who is now attorney general raced around Washington at night to the bedside of an attorney general in intensive care in a vain effort to get his signature on a program he believed was unconstitutional — a warrantless domestic spying program.
Bush, who probably ordered the whole charade, won't talk about it other than to say members of Congress were briefed after Sept. 11, 2001.
It's astonishing that Alberto Gonzales, who was Bush's lawyer then, has clung so long to his job as head of the Justice Department as it melted down around his incompetence. Even the top Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Arlen Specter, says the department is dysfunctional and predicts Gonzales will have to leave.
Bush's futile efforts to defend his friend — and Iraq war planner — Paul Wolfowitz as head of the World Bank, when the bank's own board thinks he violated its ethics policies, have made the United States look like a bully, preaching against corruption only if it doesn't hurt U.S. interests. This raises the question about when loyalty becomes liability, and why Bush can't see the difference.
Nearly every day there are new crises like these for the president, many seemingly manufactured by the administration itself.
Bush said he read three books on George Washington last year and that he is comforted by the observation that if historians are still analyzing the first president, it will be a long time before his own 43rd presidency is properly scrutinized.
Bush and Blair were wary of each other at first. Blair was President Bill Clinton's friend and was worried about Bush's "frat-boy" reputation. But leaders must rise above such concerns, and Blair knew his legacy would be tied to the legacy Bush would create, for good and ill.
Bush and Gordon Brown, Blair's successor, will work together because they must. But it will not be the mutual dependency and trust that Blair and Bush forged, and Bush will miss Blair's forceful but supportive presence and passion. Blair somehow elevated Bush.
Increasingly, it's as if Bush is marking time, wondering when the job stopped being fun. The poor man needs all the friends he can get.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)hotmail.com.)