Several years ago, with controversy over the invasion of Iraq swirling, Alexander Downer saw a chance to score a point against one of the most credible critics of the government's policy.
The then foreign minister was at Melbourne Airport walking towards the gate to catch his flight when he saw, walking ahead of him, Dick Woolcott.
Woolcott was a career diplomat, former secretary of the department of foreign affairs and trade. Although he had retired by the time the Howard government took power, the new government had asked him to perform some delicate diplomatic missions. John Howard made him a special envoy to bringing about a rapprochement with Malaysia's prickly prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, for instance.
But the invasion of Iraq changed all that. Woolcott emerged as a critic. Now seizing the moment in Melbourne Airport, did the foreign minister confront Woolcott? Did he argue the merits of the policy? Did he try to change his mind? Or did he tell him what he thought of him? None of these.
Yelling above the heads of the other travellers, Downer called out to the back of Woolcott's head, "Loser!" he told me later. "Then I ducked down quickly in case he turned around and saw me." In recounting the story, Downer seemed to think it a very funny thing to do.
This was the man who, for nearly a dozen years, represented Australia in the high councils of the world. As this anecdote reveals, Downer can be petty and puerile. He plays a mean-spirited, personal, scratchy game of partisan politics. He can be breathtakingly immature.
He was always ready to be flippant and frivolous. He was something of an Inspector Clouseau of foreign ministers: pompous, slightly ridiculous, self-important, hard to take seriously, though ultimately getting through most of his assignments with some bare seat-of-the-pants competence.
Flippancy can be entertaining but, when employed injudiciously by a foreign minister, can compromise Australia's interests. Downer shared the podium with the New Zealand Trade Minister, Phil Goff, at a dinner a couple of years ago as part of the annual Australia-New Zealand Leadership Forum. This is a quasi-official initiative which holds its events off the record.
The big complaint against Australia at the time, and perennially, was about Australia's ban on NZ apples. Canberra says NZ apples cannot be imported because they may infect the Australia crop with the disease fire blight; Wellington argues this is a pseudo-scientific cover story for naked protectionism.
When Downer took the microphone, other diners recollected, he said: "I just want you all to know that all Australian quarantine decisions are science-based" - pause - "it's called political science."
As these anecdotes illustrate, Downer never learnt the lesson of his tenure as a failed leader of the opposition. His leadership of the Liberal Party was already in strife but it was his ill-judged joke about domestic violence - "the things that batter," Downer chortled - that brought his term to a rapid end. He remains the only Liberal leader who never got to contest an election. Downer lacked judgment, and that lack of judgment meant he never acquired gravitas. He held high office, but at a low level.
"He holds the record for the most unpopular opposition leader in 36 years," the life of Australia's longest-running political poll, the Nielsen poll, according to Nielsen's John Stirton. Even his mother couldn't pretend he was any kind of a success as Liberal leader: "It wasn't easy - of course it wasn't," Lady Downer told the journalist Annabel Crabb some years ago. "But he didn't do very well, so one must face up to that."
Paradoxically, it was Downer's short and disastrous tenure as opposition leader that created the conditions for him to become Australia's longest-serving foreign minister.
By agreeing to a peaceful handover of the leadership to John Howard, Downer allowed Howard to take the job bloodlessly. Howard was indebted to Downer. He repaid the debt by allowing Downer the portfolio of his choice - foreign affairs - and allowing him to remain in it as long as he wished.
A prime minister would have removed a minister with a first year as bad as Downer's as foreign minister. But, because of his debt, Howard supported him unswervingly.
Perhaps Downer's greatest political failure, however, was not his inglorious term as Liberal leader but his time as foreign minister. Because it was while Downer was minister that his shadow minister, Labor's up-and-coming Kevin Rudd, made his running as the inevitable new leader of the Labor Party.
Rudd came to win the respect and confidence of the voting public in the years he was facing off against Downer. The foreign minister was unable to derail or discredit Rudd. Instead, he was the perfect foil.
It was while Rudd was prosecuting the attack on the AWB scandal, the Iraq war, the "Pacific solution" and the failure to sign the Kyoto Protocol that he demonstrated his competence and soundness. It was this performance that persuaded the voting public, and then the Labor caucus, that Rudd was leadership material. In this sense, Downer helped create the leader who destroyed the Howard government.
As he announced his retirement from Parliament yesterday, Downer said his greatest accomplishment was to bring freedom to the people of East Timor. And it was a signal achievement for Australia to act as midwife at the birth of an independent East Timor.
But the problem with this claim is that the big decision on East Timor was John Howard's, not Alexander Downer's. Indeed, all the really major foreign policy choices of the Howard years were Howard's. This crimps Downer's claim of ownership of Timorese independence, but it also helps exonerate him from blame for some of the worst decisions of the last government.
It was Downer who designed the so-called "Pacific solution" - to bribe a broken-backed Nauru to hold asylum-seekers seeking access to Australia - but it was on Howard's orders to make sure they did not reach Australian soil.
And it was Downer who most ardently and tirelessly defended the invasion of Iraq, but it was Howard's decision to participate in that misguided venture. And, in the historical assessment, Downer's term as foreign minister will surely be judged on the Iraq policy.
Dick Woolcott today says that he didn't notice Downer's airport taunt. But Woolcott, who once again has been called out of retirement to act as a special envoy for an incoming government, has this taunt for Downer: "Downer and Howard were accomplices in probably the most catastrophic foreign policy decision the US has made."
And it was with Iraq in mind that another grey eminence of Australian foreign policy sent Downer a valedictory text message on Wednesday. Owen Harries, a political conservative but a foreign policy realist, recalling Downer's endless urgings that Australia stay the course in Iraq, sent Downer a message that could be his political epitaph: "Don't cut and run, Alex!"
Peter Hartcher is the Sydney Morning Herald's political editor.