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presidential milestone passed almost unnoticed Friday. For the first time
in the history of televised news conferences, a president of the United
States made fun of a bald person.
The moment arrived as the press conference in Crawford, Texas, was going poorly for George W. Bush. He had just struggled through an answer about why he had believed there were 60 stem-cell lines that could be used for finding cures to debilitating human ailments, from spinal-cord injuries to Alzheimer’s disease.
Beyond the question of whether those 60 stem-cell lines actually exist for federally funded research, it now appears that most or all of those lines have been mixed with mouse cells and might be dangerous if used to develop cures for humans. The stem-cell lines were intended for only initial stages of research, though Bush's stem-cell decision of Aug. 9 now prevents untainted lines from being created for the advanced research. [Washington Post, Aug. 24, 2001]
Bush, who had made his intensive personal research into the stem-cell issue a counterpoint to critics who consider him intellectually lazy, put the blame for this crucial oversight on scientists at the National Institute of Health. He said they “came into the Oval Office and they looked me right in the eye and they said, ‘We think there is ample stem cells – lines to determine whether or not this embryonic stem-cell research will be – will work or not.’”
Seemingly flustered by this embarrassment to his widely lauded stem-cell decision, Bush turned to a familiar reporter who had covered him as Texas governor. In a boisterous bonhomie, Bush called the Texas reporter “a fine lad, fine lad,” drawing laughter from the national press corps.
The Texas reporter began to ask his question, “You talked about the need to maintain technological …”
But Bush, acting like an excited party guest who couldn’t keep a funny comment inside, interrupted the reporter to deliver the punch line. “A little short on hair, but a fine lad. Yeah,” Bush said, provoking a new round of laughter at the reporter's expense.
The young reporter paused and acknowledged meekly, “I am losing some hair.”
The reporter then soldiered on with a question about whether the administration would “go forward with the V-22” warplane, a question of particular interest to the economy of Fort Worth, Texas.
Bush, however, wasn’t through having fun with the young reporter, who “represents Fort Worth,” Bush noted, prompting another round of knowing laughter from the national press corps.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who was with Bush, joined in on the joke. “I never would have guessed,” he cracked, eliciting more laughter.
A Bush Pattern
The event of a president mocking someone for an appearance – in this case, thinning hair – might have seemed odd if it had come from any other national leader. Even during stressful times, other presidents have avoided such cheap shots in their public comments, apparently understanding how hurtful a personal insult from a president can be – and from a sense that such comments could diminish the office.
Going bald is not a matter of choice. It is caused by family genetics or illness and is a sensitive point to millions of men and women who have lost their hair for no fault of their own.
But Bush seemed oblivious to the possibility of hurt feelings, like some office jokester who pokes fun at co-workers when they return from vacation a little plumper than when they left. Indeed, over the past few years, Bush has found his loose tongue a political asset as many of his supporters view it as a sign that he’s a straight-talking guy of the Rush Limbaugh mold.
Ribbing the young Texas reporter for his thinning hair fits with a long pattern of Bush making others the butt of his jokes. Sometimes the comments seem playful, such as giving reporters slightly demeaning nicknames. Other times, they have a touch of malice.
Early in Campaign 2000, Bush was traveling around with conservative writer Tucker Carlson, who was preparing a profile. Carlson later recounted Bush’s ridicule of convicted murderer Karla Faye Tucker as she pleaded for her life.
Asked about her clemency appeal, Bush mimicked what he claimed was the condemned woman’s message to him: “With pursed lips in mock desperation, [Bush said,] ‘Please don’t kill me.’” Carlson wrote in Talk magazine.
Other times, Bush makes jokes at the expense of his friends. Again early in the campaign, Bush lined up for a photo at an event in Texas and fingered the man next to him. “He’s the ugly one!” Bush joshed. Then, spotting a reporter, Bush offered the explanation that he was only kidding an old buddy. [NYT, Aug. 22, 1999]
In earlier years, when he was drinking heavily, Bush’s public behavior could turn downright nasty. In early April 1986, for instance, Bush was angry about a prediction from Wall Street Journal columnist Al Hunt that Bush’s father would lose the Republican nomination.
Bush spotted Hunt having dinner at a Dallas restaurant with his wife, Judy Woodruff, and their four-year-old son. Bush stormed up to the table and started cursing out Hunt. “You [expletive] son of a bitch,” Bush yelled. “I saw what you wrote. We’re not going to forget this.” [Washington Post, July 25, 1999]
Bush’s supporters have excused his behavior before his 40th birthday on the ground that he was often drunk. However, last year, he continued to lash out at journalists who wrote what he considered critical stories.
In one of the campaign’s most memorable moments, Bush uttered an aside to his running mate Dick Cheney about 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.
Bush also continued to make light of people facing the death penalty in
Texas. In the
second presidential debate, for instance, Bush argued that a stronger
hate-crimes law was not needed in Texas because three men were facing the
death penalty for the racially motivated murder of James Byrd, a black man
dragged to his death behind a pickup truck.
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 troubling smirk again when discussing people on Death Row.
While many of Bush’s backers find his biting humor refreshing – the sign of a “politically incorrect” politician – some critics see it reflecting a sense of superiority over those he rules.
In olden times, kings felt free to ridicule their subjects, who knew that any insubordination in return would be most unwelcome. Bush seems to enjoy the same one-sided delivery of put-downs.
Beyond his comments, some critics even contend that Bush's clumsy use of words – his gaffes, his mispronunciations, his poor grammar – fits with a dynastic sense of entitlement toward the presidency.
“Although the GOP machine has spun his elementary goofs as signs of kinship with the Common Man, they are in fact an insult to the people,” writes Mark Crispin Miller in The Bush Dyslexicon.
“Every bit of broken English, every flash of comfy ignorance, reminds us of a privilege blithely squandered: Bush attended Phillips Andover Academy, then Yale – olympian institutions that would never have admitted him if he were not a Bush,” Miller continues.
“However, he was both too limited and too secure to take full advantage of an opportunity that countless brighter, poorer folks have worked for, prayed for, and then been denied. Bush did the minimum at Yale, mainly partying and making good connections. …
“Thus, in the matter of his education, this president, despite his folksy pretense, is something of an anti-Lincoln – one who, instead of learning eagerly in humble circumstances, learned almost nothing at the finest institutions in the land.
“When he comments on how many hands he’s ‘shaked,’ or frets that quotas ‘vulcanize’ society, … he is, of course, flaunting not his costly education but his disdain for it – much as some feckless prince, with a crowd of beggars watching from the street, might take a few bites from the feast laid out before him, then let the servants throw the rest away.”
Much like this prince taunting the beggars, Bush asserts a privilege to speak condescendingly to commoners in his presence. He puts them down with little jokes that they feel they have no choice but to accept.
Yes, the young Texas reporter responded to the president of the United States, “I am losing some hair.”