You couldn't make him up, and you don't have to. Like him or loathe him, George Bush is for real - and heading soon for a capital city near you. Rupert Cornwell introduces our celebration of the remarkable career of Britain's favourite US President
Monarchs and their Prime Ministers enjoy many privileges not granted to their subjects. Clairvoyance, however, is not among them. For how were the Queen and Tony Blair to know in 2001, when they extended the invitation for President Bush to make his state visit next week, that two years later it would be shaping up as the most fraught and ill-timed exercise of its kind in living memory?
Simply put, the leader of the country that Blair insists is our closest ally is about to receive the most torrid reception ever to greet a foreign dignitary on British shores. It's predicted that up to 100,000 people will be out on London's streets to protest at Bush's presence. All police leave has been cancelled, and Scotland Yard and the US secret services charged with protecting the President are trying to agree how much of London should be sealed off to prevent demonstrators - and possible terrorists - from getting a sight of him.
But even if Bush, whose contact with the news is so assiduously filtered by his courtiers, gains little idea of the turmoil around him, his countrymen back home assuredly will. The treacherous French and spineless Germans are one thing. But in Iraq - as in most other things, the average American assumes - the British are our friends. Imagine the shock, then, when they see surging crowds, burning flags and (unless police step into ban it) a giant effigy of the Great Leader being toppled, à la Saddam, in Trafalgar Square.
It is not only Bush the Chicken-hawk warmonger and promoter-in-chief of the great illusion about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction who they will be denouncing. It is also Bush the ignorant, self-righteous Christian warrior, Bush the smirking executioner and Bush the believer in one law for America and another for everyone else. And, of course, Bush the "Toxic Texan", an image made flesh by the "ghost ships" bearing down on Hartlepool, whose US-produced contaminants will find a last resting place on Britain's unpolluted isle.
No man is ever quite as extreme as his caricature. But Bush comes closer than most, and not only Britons cannot abide him. In his own country, too, he is perhaps an even more polarising Presi- dent than Bill Clinton. Conservatives abhorred Clinton; but for the liberal half of an equally divided country Bush embodies everything to hate about the right. And the President's great betrayal only makes them angrier.
This, after all, was a President elected after the closest election in history - a President, indeed, who, but for the archaism of the electoral college, would have lost to Al Gore, who clearly defeated him in the popular vote. At first Bush made conciliatory noises, but his "compassionate conservatism" soon became a hollow joke. His administration is the most radical of modern times. It has rammed through huge tax cuts, and run up the biggest deficits in US history in the name of supply-side ideology. By tilting those cuts towards the very rich, he has widened the disparities of US society.
Rarely is there any serious attempt to engage with critics, just the fait accompli, and the implication that, in time of war, opposition is akin to giving succour to the enemy. Bush wants to pack the courts with doctrinal right-wing judges; if he could, he would roll back a woman's right to choose even further than the ban on partial birth abortion he signed into law last week.