Jokes that stick At the White House Correspondents Association’s annual black-tie gala, where big media and big politics party and take playful potshots at each other, Bush had them rolling in the aisles over a slide show. “It’s getting late,” he said, “and fortunately there won’t be time tonight for my slide shows of the trip to Honduras.” Huh? That was the other President Bush, at his first White House Correspondents Association dinner on April 30, 1989. And the slide show joke — reportedly that night’s best — referred to lingering questions about the Iran-Contra affair and a trip that Bush the elder took to Honduras as Ronald Reagan’s vice president.
It’s hard to tell what parts of George W. Bush’s routine at his first correspondents dinner Saturday night in Washington will seem hopelessly dated and head-scratchingly obscure when the next president takes the podium, and which ones will seem prophetic. The newest Bush in the White House did put on an actual slide show, complete with naked toddler photos of his brother Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, just to prove there were no hard feelings about the whole recount debacle. In addition to the family pictures, Bush’s dinner routine included an elaborate sendup of “Survivor,” featuring Bob Dole ambling around his office in an outback-style headdress, holding a torch. The last shot was of liberal demon/conservative goddess Katherine Harris, Florida’s secretary of state, opening a tie-breaking “Bore” ballot, and calling the election for Bush. While the skit was uproariously funny to the audience, it may have all the historic staying power of the performance of comedian Jim Morris — who? — the man responsible for doing a spot-on Bush impersonation in 1989. Or will it be as memorable as the cutting-edge monologue of stand-up artist Elayne Boosler, who headlined Bill Clinton’s first WHCA dinner? Who will know the name of Darrell Hammond — the “Saturday Night Live” Clinton/Gore impersonator who performed on Saturday for Bush?
But there are some lines spouted at previous WHCA dinners that presidents haven’t been able to walk away from so easily. For example: when the first President Bush laughed at himself after reporters said that his schedule was so much more rigorous than Reagan’s. “That’s the first time that I have ever been accused of keeping anybody awake,” he said. And it was probably the last. Or when Clinton told the press corps at the end of a rocky 100 days, “You tell them when I stumble. But always tell them I’m not standing still.” And they never did. What words will Bush the younger have to swallow in the coming years? Perhaps it will be the joke he told after showing the audience his first-grade report card, complete with straight A’s. “So my advice is,” said Bush, “don’t peak too early.” With high approval ratings and a few notable stumbles, the president might take this advice to heart.
I don’t envy Jenna and Barbara Bush, going off to college under the watchful eye of the Secret Service and the international media. But the sudden flurry of headlines about the first twins’ alcohol-related mishaps raises new questions about the way their father handled his own “young and irresponsible” exploits.
I always thought it was a bad decision for Bush, as a politician, to refuse to acknowledge his wild past, but clearly it was a bad choice for Bush as a father. After his 1976 drunken-driving arrest was revealed last year, Bush said he didn’t admit it when he decided to run for president because he didn’t want his daughters to know about it. That was a mistake, and the twins’ recent run of bad behavior seems designed to let him know that.
There’s no evidence either twin has a drinking problem, but the string of news items involving their partying in these first 100 days can’t be ignored. First came the tale of Secret Service agents ferrying home Jenna’s boyfriend after he was arrested for public drunkenness. Then there were randy National Enquirer photos of Jenna, a University of Texas freshman, and a beer-drinking pal, and a story about her marijuana use. Yale freshman Barbara, supposedly the studious twin, had a false I.D. confiscated at a New Haven, Conn., bar, and last week the Enquirer featured a lurid tale of her drunken spring-break binge in Mexico. Finally, Thursday night, Jenna was cited by police at an Austin bar for underage drinking while Secret Service agents waited outside.
Of course, many of us would have provided lively tabloid fodder in college if we’d been subjected to the scrutiny Barbara and Jenna Bush must endure. Still, their recklessness in the first months of their father’s presidency suggests their parents screwed up by downplaying and even denying President Bush’s own drinking problem.
Bush’s he-man decision to quit drinking cold turkey is the stuff of legend. The morning after a boozy 40th birthday party in 1986, he woke up at Colorado’s tony Broadmoor Resort and decided, on his own, to get sober. Alcohol had begun to “compete for my affections,” Bush said later. Certainly he didn’t need Alcoholics Anonymous, he told the Washington Post: “I don’t think I was clinically an alcoholic; I didn’t have the genuine addiction. I don’t know why I drank. I liked to drink, I guess.”
He refused to discuss his drinking or rumored drug use throughout his political campaigns, relying on the stock excuse, “When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.” His parents have also repeatedly denied he had a drinking problem, even after several family crises involving his drinking came to light: an ugly Christmas confrontation with his father in 1972, after Bush drove drunk with his brother Marvin, crashed into a neighbor’s garbage cans and offered to fight “mano a mano” with his father; and the 1976 DUI incident near the family compound in Kennebunkport, Me., with his then teenage sister Dorothy in the car.
We know Bush’s problem drinking, including the DUI, was a family secret. The night a reporter broke the DUI story, Laura Bush called both daughters, in Austin and New Haven, to break the news to them. “I made the decision that as a dad I didn’t want my girls doing the kinds of things I did, and I told them not to drink and drive,” Bush told reporters. But he didn’t tell them about his own arrest.
The secrecy, of course, was a mistake. Anyone who works with alcoholics and their families knows honesty is crucial: The drinking parent needs to come clean about his or her problems, and kids need to understand the family dynamics that were established around the drinking. And as teenagers, they need to know that alcoholism is a disease — whether because of psychology or physiology or some combination of the two — that is remarkably hereditary, and think about their own drinking in that context.
None of that, apparently, went on in the WASP-y Texas Bush family, and it looks as if the first twins are acting out as a result. Even with a Secret Service detail, there are ways for young girls to party, if they’re discreet. Clearly, the first twins aren’t. Their blatant risk taking and public partying (the Secret Service waits outside the bars where they drink illegally?) seem designed to force a family reckoning that their father’s drinking never triggered.
I’m reluctant to play family therapist for a family I’ve never met, but I’d say that Bush may have gotten past voters with evasiveness about his drinking problem, but he hasn’t satisfied his daughters. And if he sticks to the sanitized, up-from-Broadmoor version of his alcoholism, he may someday find he won the presidency at the cost of his family.
— Joan Walsh
“We have made a good start. But it’s only a start.”
— President Bush in his weekly radio address, aired Saturday
By now, we all know how Bush and company feel about the media scramble to assess the president’s first 100 days in office: It’s all sound and fury, signifying nothing. But Bush has played along, planning a luncheon Monday afternoon with all 535 members of Congress while 100-days report cards and retrospectives continue to dribble in.
The editorial board of the Boston Globe was particularly critical, repeating questions about Bush’s legitimacy and accusing him of partisan policies. “Undeterred by his disputed election, his party’s slim hold on Congress, or the nation’s enduring divisions,” the Globe declared, “President Bush made his first 100 days into a disciplined campaign of undoing — methodically reversing environmental, health, and worker protections.”
Also still snickering after all these days is New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who, after learning that her own Bushie nickname is “cobra,” set out to earn it by biting the president for his reported detachment and foreign policy blunders. Specifically referring to the swamp Bush stumbled into with his statements on China-Taiwan policy last week, Dowd called the president a “yo-yo who can’t be trusted to carry on a brief discussion about his own policies.”
Newsweek, meanwhile, laughed with Bush and not at him, suggesting that his determination to let his political adversaries continue to “misunderestimate” him demonstrated a wily sense of how a conservative could play hardball in Washington without seeming hardhearted to Middle America. The magazine observes of Bush: “He’s been humble, but kind of cocky; quiet, but surprisingly effective — in short, lazy like a fox.”
Bush displayed some of those skills in his 100-days interview with Time magazine, conducted Wednesday. The president speaks with confidence about everything from his energy plan to his education policies. He even picks through the Taiwan minefield without setting off the unnecessary blasts that rattled his administration last week, when he declared it America’s duty to use military force were China to attack the island nation. “I recognize the relationship between China is going to be very complex, but [it's] in our nation’s interest for us to find areas where we can agree and to work on areas where we disagree,” he said.
The Washington Post warned readers to beware the mark of the spinners when evaluating the image that emerges from Bush’s first months in office, and warned the president that relying on a squad of middlemen may be good enough to foil the press but could complicate relations with Congress.
Looking forward to the next 100 days, the president has set up a new policy priority to go along with his push for a tax cut and a small-spender budget. Bush will debut his strategic missile defense plan, “Star Wars,” this week. In the wake of the China-Taiwan gaffe, the plan has its risks: It’s wildly unpopular with our “strategic competitors” in China, our former adversaries in Russia and a whole host of American allies in Europe.
Meanwhile, Democratic fears that Bush will be able to overhaul the Supreme Court were allayed some when, denying persistent rumors, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor insisted she has no inclination to retire. O’Connor has consistently lined up with the five-member majority on the court that favors state sovereignty over federal legislation and voted to end the Florida recount in December, effectively awarding the presidency to Bush. But she’s not loved by opponents of Roe vs. Wade, who see her as an obstacle to overturning the decision.
Monday schedule: Bush will host his 100-days luncheon at the White House for members of Congress. (Some Democrats are expected to skip the event.) He has already met with close to 300 legislators of both parties. Vice President Dick Cheney will speak at an Associated Press event in Toronto.
— Alicia Montgomery
This day in Bush history
April 30, 1996: Texas Gov. George W. Bush and New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman were named “temporary” co-chairmen of the 1996 Republican Convention, a role that let them share the gavel with permanent chairman House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Whitman opposed a GOP platform plank calling for a constitutional amendment to ban abortion; Bush supported it. “It was a winning platform in 1988. I don’t think it determined the outcome of the 1992 election. I think it’s important to keep it in,” he said.
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Bushed! contributors: Eric Boehlert, Kerry Lauerman, Daryl Lindsey, Alicia Montgomery, Fiona Morgan, Jake Tapper, Joan Walsh, Anthony York
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