A flip-flop from the good humor man

George W. Bush is trying to be serious in the face of tragedy, but he can't resist a joke -- especially when it obscures his hardball politics on the Supreme Court.

By T.g.

Published September 6, 2005 8:29PM (EDT)

A day and a half after nominating his replacement, George W. Bush just paid his respects to late Chief Justice William Rehnquist. The president and the first lady walked into the Great Hall of the Supreme Court, stood briefly before Rehnquist's flag-draped coffin and then walked back out. The process took maybe a minute, and, in an impressive sign of emotional maturity, the president managed to get through it without cracking a joke about the partying days of his past.

Bush spent a good part of last week enjoying his vacation, celebrating birthdays and goofing around with a guitar. But it's the first day of school in a lot of places around America, and Karl Rove has apparently told his star pupil that it's time to get serious. The president met with his Cabinet this morning, and he avoided shouting out any goofy nicknames. He spoke with reporters about Katrina relief efforts, and this time he spent more time talking about the people who are suffering than the bottles of water that have been shipped. And, so far as we can tell, Bush got through at least three brief sessions before the cameras today without once referring to himself as "George W."

But the irrepressible president hasn't been muzzled entirely. In the aftermath of a natural disaster that may have killed 10,000, amid a war that has claimed the lives of 1,891 Americans and at time when the nation is mourning its chief justice, who can resist making a joke or two, especially when it can help put a smiling face on some hardball presidential politics? Asked today whether he's considering the same potential Supreme Court nominees he considered last time around, Bush told reporters: "The list is wide open, which should create some good speculation here in Washington. And make sure you notice when I said that I looked right at Al Gonzales, who can really create speculation."

There was laughter in the room before Bush turned a little more serious. As we noted earlier today, Ted Kennedy has suggested that the Senate ought to know who Bush is going to nominate to replace Sandra Day O'Connor before it has to vote on his nominee to replace William Rehnquist. It's a reasonable idea, but Bush rejected it out of hand today. "I want the Senate to focus not on who the next nominee is going to be, but the nominee I've got up there now," he said. "And it's important for the country that they complete the work. And in the meantime, the country can be assured that I'll take a good, long look at who should replace Justice O'Connor. I called her from Air Force One yesterday and told her of my decision to name John Roberts to be the chief. And her first reaction was that she better get back to doing her homework, and she said so somewhat tongue in cheek, but she's right, she'll be there when the Court is seated with a new chief justice. And then we'll move deliberately to replace Justice O'Connor."

Not so long ago, Bush was insisting that it was important to have O'Connor's replacement on the bench by the time the Supreme Court returns for its fall term on Oct. 3. Now that the political calculus has changed, he seems to be saying that he won't even nominate O'Connor's replacement until sometime after that. We'd like to think the president was joking, but this time, at least, he seemed to be dead serious.

By T.g.


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