Bush's Disdainful Presidency
Animal House in the West Wing
The U.S. news media always makes light of George W. Bush’s tendency to put down others through disparaging comments about their personal appearances or by assigning them silly nicknames. It’s just the “inner frat boy” coming out, we’re told.
George W. Bush has another way of demonstrating his supremacy over subordinates: when new White House aides are brought in to be introduced to the President of the United States, the President farts.
So, when U.S. News cited “a top insider” describing how Bush likes to fart in the presence of junior White House staffers as a joke on them, the item was given the boys-will-be-boys title: “Animal House in the West Wing.”
According to U.S. News, Bush was just “a funny, earthy guy who, for example, can’t get enough of fart jokes. He’s also known to cut a few for laughs, especially when greeting new young aides.” Bush was described, too, as someone who “loves to cuss [and] gets a jolly when a mountain biker wipes out trying to keep up with him.” [U.S. News, Aug. 20, 2006]
But Bush’s behavior could be viewed in a less sympathetic light. Given his famous thin skin whenever he feels slighted, his eagerness to demean others could be interpreted as a sign of his dynastic authority, a modern-day droit du seigneur in which he can humiliate others but they can’t return the favor.
Indeed, this tendency to assert his superior position over others by subjecting them to degrading treatment has been a recurring part of Bush’s persona dating back at least to his days as an “enforcer” on his father’s presidential campaigns.
Later in the campaign, when Newsweek ran a cover story with the image of George H.W. Bush on a boat with the headline, “Fighting the Wimp Factor,” a furious George W. Bush enforced a year-long punishment of Newsweek by barring the magazine’s reporters from access to key campaign insiders.
‘Don’t Kill Me’Sometimes Bush’s sense of entitlement had an even nastier edge.
As Texas governor, Bush would mock people on Death Row. In a famous interview with conservative pundit Tucker Carlson, Bush imitated condemned murderess Carla Faye Tucker’s unsuccessful plea for clemency. “Please don’t kill me,” Bush whimpered through pursed lips, mimicking the woman he had put to death.
In another example of Bush’s put-down humor, the Texas governor lined up with a group of men for a photo and fingered the man next to him. “He’s the ugly one!” Bush laughed, before realizing that the incident was being observed by a reporter. [NYT, Aug. 22, 1999]
Other times, Bush showed how prickly he can be when facing criticism. During a campaign stop in Naperville, Ill., Bush groused to his running mate, Dick Cheney, about what Bush considered negative coverage from New York Times reporter Adam Clymer. “There’s Adam Clymer – major league asshole – from the New York Times,” Bush said as he was waving to a campaign crowd from a stage in Naperville, Ill.
“Yeah, big time,” responded Cheney. Their voices were picked up on an open microphone.
During a presidential debate in 2000, Bush was back to making light of Texas executions. While arguing against the need for hate-crimes laws, Bush said the three men convicted of the racially motivated murder of James Byrd were already facing the death penalty.
“It’s going to be hard to punish them any worse after they’re put to death,” Bush said, with an out-of-place smile across his face. Beyond the inaccuracy of his statement – one of the three killers had received life imprisonment – there was that smirk again when discussing people on Death Row.
Bald GuysBush’s demeaning humor carried over into his presidency as he enjoyed razzing people about their looks, often in public when they could do nothing but blush and look down at their feet.
At a press conference at his Crawford ranch on Aug. 24, 2001, Bush called on a Texas reporter who had covered Bush as governor. Bush said the young reporter was “a fine lad, fine lad,” drawing laughter from the national press corps.
The Texas reporter then began to ask his question, “You talked about the need to maintain technological ...” But Bush interrupted the reporter to deliver his punch line: “A little short on hair, but a fine lad. Yeah.”
As Bush joined in the snickering, the young reporter paused and acknowledged meekly, “I am losing some hair.”
Bush’s joy in mocking bald men didn’t stop with reporters.
At a joint White House press conference May 16, 2006, with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Bush slipped in a couple of zingers about Howard’s bald head and supposed homeliness.
Bush joshed, “Somebody said, ‘You and John Howard appear to be so close, don’t you have any differences?’ And I said, ‘yes, he doesn’t have any hair.’”
Getting a round of laughs from reporters, Bush moved on to his next joke: “That’s what I like about John Howard,” Bush said. “He may not be the prettiest person on the block, but when he tells you something you can take it to the bank.”
Howard played the role of gracious guest, smiling and saying nothing in response to the unflattering comments about his physical appearance.
Neck RubBesides publicly embarrassing people about their looks – while they are in no position to return the favor – Bush also demonstrates his power by invading personal space, cupping his hand behind a man’s neck or – in the case of German Chancellor Angela Merkel – giving her an unwelcome neck rub at the G-8 summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
In a generally flattering portrait of Bush in the 2003 book, The Right Man, former Bush speechwriter David Frum acknowledged that Bush often used sarcasm to dress down his subordinates as well as his political opponents.
Bush is “impatient and quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a result ill informed,” Frum wrote. When referring to environmentalists, Bush would call them “green-green lima beans,” according to Frum.
Other times, Bush’s harsh humor has complicated U.S. foreign policy, including the tense relations with North Korea. During a lectern-pounding tirade before Republican leaders in May 2002, Bush insulted North Korea’s diminutive dictator Kim Jong Il by calling him a “pygmy,” Newsweek reported. The slur quickly circulated around the globe.
While many Bush backers find his acid tongue and biting humor refreshing – the sign of a “politically incorrect” politician – some critics contend that Bush’s casual insults fit with a dynastic sense of entitlement toward the presidency and toward those he rules.
DynastyThe Bushes show no modesty about their extraordinary political dynasty. At family events, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush wear matching caps and wind-breakers emblazoned with the numbers 41 and 43, identifying their presidencies. George W. Bush also relished the fawning news coverage that followed the 9/11 attacks, complete with suggestions from the likes of NBC’s Tim Russert that Bush’s selection as President might have been divinely inspired.
In a round-table discussion on Dec. 23, 2001, Russert joined New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and First Lady Laura Bush in ruminating about whether divine intervention had put Bush in the White House to handle the crisis. Russert asked Mrs. Bush if “in an extraordinary way, this is why he was elected.” Mrs. Bush disagreed with Russert’s suggestion that “God picks the President, which he doesn’t.”
This hagiographic treatment of Bush might have been intended to boost his confidence in the face of a national crisis. But the flattery instead seems to have fed an egotism that devoured any remaining self-doubts.
The swelling of Bush’s head was apparent in his interview for Bob Woodward’s Bush at War, which took a largely flattering look at Bush’s “gut” decision-making but reported some disturbing attitudes within the White House.
“I am the commander, see,” Bush told Woodward. “I do not need to explain why I say things. That’s the interesting thing about being the President. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they need to say something, but I don’t feel like I owe anybody an explanation.”
So, Bush had come to see himself as beyond accountability, much as ancient royalty viewed their own powers as unlimited under the divine right of kings. In the traditional droit du seigneur, a nobleman had the right to deflower the bride of a male subject on their first night of marriage.
Now we’re told that George W. Bush has another way of demonstrating his supremacy over subordinates: when new White House aides are brought in to be introduced to the President of the United States, the President farts.
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth. This article is republished in the Baltimore Chronicle with permission of the author.
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This story was published on August 28, 2006.