He is trying to preserve his legacy with a flurry of decrees and interviews - but the issue of torture may well return to haunt him
Presidencies begin with a slate wiped clean and a first 100 days in which the new incumbent sets out to change the world. They end in the tawdry process in which George W Bush is now engaged: a final flurry of presidential dec-rees to prolong power beyond the grave, a concerted effort to regild a tarnished reputation - and, of course, pardons.
For months now, Bush has been issuing new regulations and notices to tie the hands of the Obama administration. The practice is not new: one of the worst previous offenders was none other than the deeply virtuous Jimmy Carter. But this Bush has indulged it far more than either his father or Bill Clinton. At the last count he has signed more than 100 such orders - in effect, new laws that don't need to be approved by Congress - and more are likely during his last fortnight in office. And if you're a liberal or an environmentalist, or just a run-of-the-mill Democrat, you'll hate them.
Among other things, these "midnight rules" clear the way for developing oil shale deposits on government land and make it easier for coal companies to dump strip-mining waste into local rivers. It will now be easier to build a coal-fired power station near a national park. In these same national parks, moreover, you may henceforth carry a loaded or concealed gun. A separate regulation chips away further at abortion rights, while another allows truckers to drive for longer periods without compulsory rest. Other changes weaken the Endangered Species Act and loosen federal rules on factory farming.
Last-minute regulations will be easy to unpick, but others less so. Some executive orders, with an impact of at least $100m a year, were published at least seven weeks ago, so they will have completed the required 60-day waiting period to become law by the time Barack Obama takes over.
"Midnight rules" are one way to try to reshape a presidency. Another is the media blitz that Bush and his acolytes have been conducting. For most of his term, Bush was sparing with interviews, but in the past few weeks he's given a dozen or more, talking up his achievements (yes, there have been a few, such as increased assistance to Africa, especially to fight Aids, and the "No Child Left Behind" education bill) and skating over the rather more numerous failures.
Bush, of course, famously hates putting himself on the couch, claiming that he's been too busy making history to worry about what the scribblers think about him. But sooner or later, every president gets the legacy bug. His valedictory interviews have been true to form: a few regrets, above all over those non-existent WMD in Iraq, but not the hint of an apology. Those who want to read more about his "freedom legacy" across the Middle East, and the glories of extended prescription drug benefits for the elderly, can take comfort from the book Bush is planning to write.
In the meantime, his senior aides are already rewriting history. You thought Dick Cheney secretly ran US foreign policy, at least in Bush's first term? "Hooey," Stephen Hadley, the meek and mild National Security Adviser, told The Washington Post last week. You thought the 43rd President was an incurious and arrogant ideologue who would not listen to anyone who disagreed with him? Wrong again. "The President is very good about hearing and wanting contrary advice," chimed in Josh Bolten, the White House chief of staff. Everyone who deals with Bush "appreciates what a good leader he is, how smart he is and especially, how humane he is". And, Bolten might have added, maybe what a voracious reader he is.
That unexpected insight emerges from a remarkable Boxing Day column in The Wall Street Journal by Karl Rove (remember him? …