The end of this year also marks the end of an era, specifically the Bush era. Funny things, endings are. You often don't see their significance until they are long past. It takes a hard look, for instance, to see what important things were ending in all the beginnings at the manger in Bethlehem. Joseph, following brief encounters with an angel, became a footnote in history. Wise men from the east cut off diplomatic ties with King Herod following their encounter with Jesus. You can't go home again, they decided, or at least not that way. Two-year-olds had their lives cut short, a sudden tragic end whose aftermath isn't told. Simeon took one look at Jesus and knew his time was up. Fade and cue credits.
Yet endings hold tender moments because they speak of our own ends, they are intimations of mortality, showing as beat poet Allen Ginsberg put it, "the dearness of the vanishing moment."
And so George W. Bush comes to the end of two terms as president of the United States by having a shoe thrown at his head. Make that two. For a president who's been vilified in books with names like Dumbass, Ambushed, and The I Hate George Bush Reader, then smeared by two-bit profiteers with countdown calendars, mugs, and T-shirts full of anti-Bushisms, the shoe throwing was probably no surprise. In fact, standing at the podium in Baghdad the president appeared almost as if he'd been expecting it-"I wondered when the real stuff would fly"-first dodging quickly to his left then ducking as the second shoe belonging to Iraqi television reporter Muntadhar al-Zaidi sailed across the room.
Newscasters were quick to explain the ultimate in Arab insults as a fit end to the Bush presidency-never mind that according to the Quran, chapter 4, verse 34, a Muslim man is OK throwing a shoe at his wife. And reports also suggested that the Arab street supported Zaidi in his last fling at Bush. But a report from Sadr City, the blight of Baghdad, does not a groundswell make.
As with all of his tenure, Bush's presidency winds down differently away from the spin, even suggesting a legacy amid the toils and snares.
"You are a hero, sir," said U2's Bono at a ceremony in December where pastor Rick Warren presented the International Medal of Peace to the president for his work on HIV/AIDS. Its success is undeniable: Five years ago 50,000 people worldwide received medical treatment for the virus, and in 2008 the Bush administration passed its overly ambitious goal of treating 2 million. But in a sit-down conversation with Warren, the president said he didn't deserve the award-"The people who made this policy work deserve an award"-deflecting praise in the one place he undoubtedly deserves it.
The president began his AIDS initiative after traveling to the island of Goree in Senegal in 2003 and in one of the best speeches of his presidency shouldering responsibility for the past evils of the slave trade ("One of the largest migrations of history was also one of the greatest crimes of history") and promising help in present evils of poverty and disease. Ironically the incoming president may have a challenge outdoing Bush on further raising Africa's profile.
And on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, history may tell another story, too. Contrary to conventional wisdom on the Arab street, I've encountered too many Iraqis like one who came up to me on a village street outside Mosul in September to say, "Tell Mr. Bush I said thank you." Life is hard, he said, "but he gave us our country back." In Afghanistan, where locals traditionally oppose outsiders, "I am finding many Afghans clearly do not want us to leave," wrote reporter Michael Yon in December.
I wish our outgoing president had done many things differently. I wish he'd stopped listening to Donald Rumsfeld and started listening to David Petraeus sooner. I wish he'd spent less and been out front more on important issues. I wish the laser focus evident the evening of 9/11 and for months afterward had remained. But as the dearness of the vanishing moment comes and is gone, small voices in far corners of the globe tell us life is better because George Bush listened to the conscience within more than the din without.