Well there are two things we can thank John Howard for (three if you count destroying the Liberal party’s membership base) – the E-3 visa which gives Australians special treatment in getting a US work permit, and the fact that Americans have a vague awareness of our leaders, thanks to the fact that ours was hitherto permanently attached to the back of theirs.

The attention remains, but for an entirely different reason. Kevvie’s tour through these parts and his joint press conference with Dubya got heavy rotation on the 24 hour networks, not only because it was a break from rehashing Bama’s pastor problems, but also because it was a delicious moment to watch Bush squirm, a past-time which about 70% of Americans would now seem to enjoy.

In the good old days, Dubya could lean on Howard, not merely figuratively, vaguely patronise him and make the alliance look like it was more than the US and a bunch of bribed East European nations. Blair would always upstage Dubya and takeover when he was patently lost and though the Rodent was more articulate than Bush – the podium is more articulate than Bush – he was also more boring, so it wasn’t a complete humiliation.

But this weekend, as the much-vaunted surge fell apart into a firefight that couldn’t be assimilated to the idea of heading off Al-Qaeda, Dubya had to stand beside that coprophagic grin as the press lined up to jam Bush sideways with Australia’s withdrawal from the fight.

Bush managed to make it less than a complete disaster by saying that Rudd was a man “of his word” – with nobody following up to ask what that made Bush and co – but for the Republicans the timing of the visit really couldn’t be worse, a reminder that Bush is a survivor of an era when a lot of Americans believed things they are now frankly embarrassed about (see Slate’s “How I Got It Wrong” series for an extended mea culpa on that whole war thang).

Rudd’s visit, and the publicity it’s getting, is a boon to the Democrats, because he’s very much their idea of the new leader they might be getting the chance to select. Obsequious and non-scary, talking of the venerable US-Australian alliance, he’s like a shiny super-trooper from their near future.

With the Paul Hogan/shrimp on barbie thing long gone, Australia attracts the same fascination as does the exchange kid with the weird food in the lunchbox – we’re like them, but not like them. The idea of a place with the same sort of easygoing public style with a Labour party and a Socialised Health System has become far more interesting, as the consequences of the absences of both have become clear to a growing number of Americans.

Talking to many of them about these things is still like tuning in a bad radio at times – “We gotta get government off our backs and a national health system” was the most recent 12 word mantra of incoherence from the shuttle bus driver – but the more concrete things, health, work conditions etc, seem to be inhering through the broadcast rhetoric.

That is good news for the Democrats, and god knows they need some, because it means that, once the actual nomination is dealt with, Obama – presumably – will be able to take the fight to the Right on these matters, and the pastor stuff will seem like a spring diversion. The fighting in Iraq has already cut through a lot of it, prompting wild bewilderment from a media that had set the debate at “the surge is working” – so what next? Still the dream ride of McCain continues – no-one’s really confronted him on the fact that the place can fall into chaos at Al-Sadr’s say so, and the question of which side of the Shi’ites the Americans should be fighting on.

Now apparently, Rudd is to meet Obama, and won’t that be a sight. Two gawky plastic s-xless futurenauts, from the third way over the hills, while McCain rages round the place like an insurance adjuster with a prostate problem at the first tee.

Rudd’s meeting him too, but will appear to be his male nurse.

And the rodent is beyond forgotten, no wisdom, all Wisden….

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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