Outside the White House on a grey, drizzly spring evening, few other gawkers were visible except the usual posse of cops.
I peered through the railings, contemplating the beleaguered Bushes, invisible somewhere behind the lighted windows.
Does George W. possess sufficient self-knowledge to be conscious of the scale of his failure?
The imbecile grin suggests not. What does he make of the succession race, the most closely contested in recent American history? I would guess that, like most incumbents of anything, he views all three aspirants with equal distaste.
Already, Bush The Discredited has become Bush The Eunuch.
He still has the motorcades, the bands playing Hail To The Chief, but nobody, least of all the Democratic Congress, does what he says any more. The eyes of America are fixed, fascinated, upon the struggle to inherit his office in January.
Smiling assassins: But Hillary Clinton will probably have to concede to Barack Obama after the last primary on June 3
There has not been an election this messy for 40 years: that is to say, since the traumas of 1968, when America was convulsed by Vietnam.
I was here in Washington then. I remember visiting the White House, among a gaggle of foreign reporters, to quiz the ruined President Lyndon Johnson.
I followed Robert Kennedy on the campaign trail before he was shot, covered the funeral of Martin Luther King and the terrifying race riots provoked by his murder.
That was the year Senator Eugene McCarthy launched a so- called "children's crusade", mobilising young war protesters for his campaign to destroy fellow Democrat Johnson.
Later came the shocking violence of the Democratic Convention in Chicago, where cops crushed anti-war protesters and hippies with baton charges and tear gas.
Because I was 22 and na've, in those months I thought we were watching America fall apart. It is hard to overstate the tide of gloom which engulfed the country then, and carried Richard Nixon to the White House.
Today, thank goodness, violence is absent from America's streets and campuses. Vietnam provoked the young to massive protest because in that era of the draft - conscription - every adolescent was threatened with participation in the doomed Asian war, which had already cost 50,000 American lives.
The Iraq war is being lost by volunteers, 'only' 4,000 of whom have perished. General David Petraeus has fulfilled an important part of the orders given to him when he was sent to command in Baghdad: contain violence, so that Iraq does not overwhelm this U.S. election.
But the campaign indeed possesses echoes of 1968, in the passions it has awakened.
In North Carolina and Indiana, where the next polls take place tomorrow, people queue around the block to register to vote - a million new Democratic electors have participated in the past seven primary contests between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
Amid the sub-prime mortgage crisis, soaring fuel and food prices, Russian sabre-rattling, China's looming menace and a barrage of hostile Muslim rhetoric, Americans feel cold and fearful.
Last week, George Bush achieved the highest national disapproval ratings - 73 per cent - in the 70-year history of presidential Gallup polling.
That means he is more unpopular than was Johnson in 1968. Americans are so accustomed to success - which they perceive as a constitutional right - that they deal harshly with leaders who fail to deliver it.
Change, change, change is the mantra of this campaign - the professed craving of the American people. But who can give it to them?
Barack Obama is an extraordinary platform speaker, the most inspiriting dream-maker to pursue the U.S. presidency in decades. America's liberal intelligentsia has fallen in love with him.
Yet, in recent days, the wheels have wobbled dangerously on Obama's wagon. The wrecker is prancing, posturing exhibitionist Reverend Jeremiah Wright, the Chicago black preacher, who is Obama's former pastor and mentor.
Wright first made the headlines a month ago, when a tape of his pronouncements about his own country hit the media.
He likened U.S. Marines in Iraq to the Roman soldiers at Christ's crucifixion.
He said that American foreign policy was to blame for 9/11, and suggested that the U.S. government could be manufacturing the Aids virus to kill blacks.
Obama was curiously slow to disown Wright. At first, he distanced himself just enough to rile the Reverend, but not nearly enough to quarantine himself from Wright's increasingly reckless public utterances.
In North Carolina, the Republicans have been running brutal TV ads, which show Wright saying "God damn America".
Then the preacher's on- screen face fades into that of Obama, and the Stars and Stripes is seen burning. At the Washington Press Club last Monday, Wright undertook a further salvo of anti-patriotic indiscretions, which seemed designed to wreck his old parishioner's presidential bid.
Here, in God's own country, mother, the flag and apple sauce still matter. In blue-collar, redneck, working-class white America, the highfalutin rhetoric of Obama, this cool, clever, inescapably elitist half-black man, was already playing badly.
They are galled by his condescension. He says that they "cling to guns or religion" because they have nothing else, and it chokes because it is true.
Last Tuesday, Obama finally fired a broadside, dissociating himself from the awful Jeremiah. But the words came late, and were delivered with a strange lack of punch. Last month, Obama was clear favourite for the White House; today, there are doubts.
The immediate beneficiary of the Obama stumble is the pop- eyed princess of the Pennsylvania primary. To be sure, many people perceive a two sick-bag situation in the spectacle of Mr and Mrs Bill Clinton playing happy families on camera.
Everybody knows they cannot stand the sight of each other any place save on the path back to the White House.
Almost nobody likes Hillary. Yet her steel, intelligence and competence are indisputable. "People say, 'Ain't she tough!' " she told an audience this week, then added defiantly: "If you'd had my life, you'd be tough, too." If I were an American, I would hold my nose and vote for horrible, clever Hillary.
But she is probably sunk. Barring an amazing upset in next week's primaries, the unelected Democratic 'super- delegates' will decide the presidential nomination, because Obama's delegate count will still be short of an absolute majority.
Even after the Wright disaster, it remains overwhelmingly likely that the 'supers' will back Obama.
They dare not shaft their party's first black front-runner for the presidency. Hillary retains, say, a 10 per cent chance of springing a surprise win.
But she will probably concede to Obama after the last primary on June 3.
What then? The U.S. is proud to believe that it has overcome most of the race problems that bathed the country in fire and blood in 1968.
Yet I met an Oregon woman this week who has been cold-calling households to raise cash for Obama.
She is dismayed, she said, by the number who respond shamelessly: "I'm not voting for that n***er." Deep uncertainty persists about the electability of a black candidate for the White House.
Senator John McCain, who six months ago even his own Republican party thought dead meat, could become default president.
McCain rouses no great enthusiasm. His rallies attract nothing like the 20,000-strong cheering and sobbing crowds, which sometimes greet Obama. But he is a patently decent man, a regular guy.
The nation forgives him for possessing a wife who resembles a buzzard in a wig. He is white, handsome and a war hero.
McCain should be disqualified for the presidency because he would be 72 on taking office, and has suffered serious cancers.
Add to his health problems, schizophrenia on policy, and we see a prospective president unlikely to cure the ills visited on this country by George Bush.
But the opinion polls suggest there is still a big vote out there for neither-of-the-above - the John Major candidate, if you like.
As the media is obsessed with the death-grapple between Clinton and Obama, McCain's policy pronouncements have so far escaped scrutiny. Yet they suggest a man who recoils from tough choices.
He wants to continue Bush's deeply divisive tax cuts, and also promises cuts in corporate levies.
These measures would consolidate the most pernicious social trend of the Bush years, pandering to the Republican Right to make America a fine country for the rich, where little people pay most of the taxes.
McCain rejects state-funded universal health care. He - like Hillary - wants a 'summer vacation' on petrol taxes, which delights a nation affronted by rising fuel prices (they are now almost half those in Britain), but represents madness amid the world energy famine. McCain's tax policies would reduce U.S. government revenues by $5trillion over ten years.
McCain says that after himself experiencing the bitterness of defeat in Vietnam, he will 'stay 100 years in Iraq until peace, stability and democracy are achieved'. This defies all informed judgments. We should simply hope he does not mean it.
In recent days, he has been playing dirtier on the platform. When the Palestinian militant group Hamas, demonised by Americans, praised Barack Obama, McCain told an audience: "It's clear who Hamas wants to be the next president of the United States."
Thoughtful Americans are starting to recognise that their country must talk to some nasty regimes because it cannot fight them all. But McCain threatens to expel Russia from the G8 economic group. He enthuses about bombing Iran if the country does not abandon its nuclear ambitions.
When I asked a friend of McCain about his real beliefs, he hesitated, then said: "He is a man of strong sentiments rather than principles - the sort you'd expect from a deeply patriotic former Vietnam prisoner of war."
Most Americans still have no idea what McCain really thinks, because he has said so many different things to so many different audiences.
Even by the usual standard of election rhetoric, the Republican candidate is reckless.
Barack Obama, by contrast, refuses to offer easy options. He is gambling that the American people really mean it when they declare a commitment to change.
His speech-making is long on style, short on substance, but he spurns the cheap pitches that both McCain and Clinton make - for instance, on cutting petrol prices and protecting mortgage holders from foreclosure.
Obama looks vulnerable, and somehow also lacking steel. We have not heard the last of pastor Wright. Even after the candidate's Tuesday speech disowning the Reverend Jeremiah, many commentators say: "Too late. If the guy was this awful, what has Obama been doing with him for the past 20 years?"
Everybody is insisting that it is essential to keep race out of this election. "But that is like urging the nation to forget Bill Clinton's sex life. Like it or not, black America will vote solidly for Obama and blue- collar America won't.
With almost 200 days to go before polling day, nobody but a fool would bet real money on this amazingly tight race.
McCain's victory would threaten America with more ill-judged Republican remedies. A triumph for Obama, by contrast, would send a thrilling message of change to the world.
But once the cheering dies, expectations would surely be disappointed, because they are impossibly high.
I hope I am wrong in sensing about him something of Tony Blair - a man of inspiring vision, rather than effective execution.
Under any president, American power is waning. The energy crisis will not go away.
There is no quick fix for looming recession. It is logistically, never mind politically, impossible for American forces to quit Iraq in less than two years.
The best the world can say with confidence about the next U.S. president is that he or she will not be George W. Bush. Thank God.