washingtonpost.com
Laura Bush's Coming-Out Party

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, May 2, 2005; 11:51 AM

Laura Bush's uproarious and ribald roast of her husband at Saturday night's White House Correspondents' Association Dinner didn't just win laughs.

It also capped a slow and up until now subtle transformation during which the first lady has emerged with a new assertive style in the East Wing of the White House, becoming an increasingly confident dabbler into public policy, and by a large margin the most popular face of the Bush administration.

Not to mention a natural at stand-up.

President Bush was the ostensible headliner of the night, but the sustained and rousing applause that greeted his arrival at the podium quickly turned into stony silence when he launched into a recitation of some of the worst jokes from his recent barnstorming tour of the country.

It was a mercy -- and a carefully choreographed one -- when the first lady rose from her seat at the head table, sent the president back to his -- "Not that old joke, not again" she said -- and delivered a perfectly paced monologue written for her by Landon Parvin, a longtime political joke writer. Those who were seated much closer than I told me the president laughed and blushed so much his face turned bright crimson.

Here's the video of the night's events from C-SPAN (the Bushes start their act at about 1:14.) Here's the full text of their remarks. This Associated Press photo captures the president's reaction.

Among the first lady's funniest lines:

"George always says he's delighted to come to these press dinners. Baloney. He's usually in bed by now. I'm not kidding. I said to him the other day, 'George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later.' I am married to the president of the United States, and here's our typical evening: Nine o'clock, Mr. Excitement here is sound asleep, and I'm watching 'Desperate Housewives' -- with Lynne Cheney. Ladies and gentlemen, I am a desperate housewife."

"But George and I are complete opposites -- I'm quiet, he's talkative, I'm introverted, he's extroverted. I can pronounce 'nuclear'. The amazing thing, however, is that George and I were just meant to be. I was the librarian who spent 12 hours a day in the library, yet somehow I met George."

"So many mothers today are just not involved in their children's lives. Not a problem with Barbara Bush. People often wonder what my mother-in-law's really like. People think she's a sweet, grandmotherly, Aunt Bea type. She's actually more like, mmm, Don Corleone."

"I saw my in-laws down at the ranch over Easter. We like it down there. George didn't know much about ranches when we bought the place. Andover and Yale don't have a real strong ranching program. But I'm proud of George. He's learned a lot about ranching since that first year when he tried to milk the horse. What's worse, it was a male horse."

"Now, of course, he spends his days clearing brush, cutting trails, taking down trees, or, as the girls call it, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. George's answer to any problem at the ranch is to cut it down with a chainsaw -- which I think is why he and Cheney and Rumsfeld get along so well."

"Laura Bush made the evening her own," writes DeNeen L. Brown in The Washington Post.

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times: "She brought down a very tough house, and she humanized her husband, whose sagging poll numbers are no match for her own."

Deborah Orin writes in the New York Post: "Mrs. Bush's press secretary, Susan Whitson, said it was the president's idea to have his wife take over -- but he didn't know his wife's lines in advance.

" 'Those of use who work with Mrs. Bush know how funny and clever she is but this is the first time the rest of the world saw it,' said Whitson who admitted Mrs. Bush 'is one of the few people who could have gotten away with some of those jokes.' "

James Gordon Meek writes in the New York Daily News: "Nailing her status as the most popular of the Bush clan -- and funniest First Lady -- Laura Bush stunned and delighted partygoers Saturday night with a wicked and bawdy roast of her husband.

"While not profane, Bush's comedy routine could have been cribbed from a 'South Park' episode, and it ambushed thousands of journalists at the annual White House Correspondents' Association bash, who probably had low expectations."

William Douglas writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "The first lady's surprise skit brought down the house and illustrates her shifting role in the president's second term -- from a so-called traditional first lady whose primary duties were ceremonial, to a more active and visible partner with a meaningful portfolio. . . .

"She's been busy inside the White House as well. With a new chief of staff, press secretary, social secretary, and speechwriter, Bush has replaced about half of her major staff positions.

"And the extreme makeover didn't stop at her East Wing office.

"It reached down to the kitchen, where White House chef Walter Scheib III was canned earlier this year."

Leslie Hoffecker writes in the Los Angeles Times that "now that the election is over, and given that her approval rating is more than 30 points higher than her husband's, the administration is putting Laura Bush front and center on the public stage -- heading an initiative to keep at-risk children from involvement with gangs and drugs, traveling to Afghanistan to thank U.S. troops for their service and to visit with Afghan women training as teachers, even dropping by 'The Tonight Show' last week for a chat with Jay Leno."

Mark Silva writes in the Chicago Tribune that "the first lady certainly is playing a larger role in the second term of President Bush. . . .

"With this grand and planned coming out of her shell, the White House's writer provided the first lady a scripted shellacking with little off limits -- not the president's ranch in Crawford, not the Bush family compound at Kennebunkport, Maine, and not the president's mother, Barbara Bush."

An Administration Adrift?

The press is marking the end of Bush's 60-days of barnstorming on Social Security and the end of the first 100 days of his second term with a multitude of assessments.

John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post about the contrast between the heady post-election days and today.

Back then: "Among campaign strategists and academics, there was ample speculation that Bush's victory, combined with incremental gains in the Republican congressional majority, signaled something fundamental: a partisan and ideological 'realignment' that would reshape politics over the long haul."

But now: "As the president passed the 100-day mark of his second term over the weekend, the main question facing Bush and his party is whether they misread the November elections. With the president's poll numbers down, and the Republican majority ensnared in ethical controversy, things look much less like a once-a-generation realignment.

"Instead, some political analysts say it is just as likely that Washington is witnessing a happens-all-the-time phenomenon -- the mistaken assumption by politicians that an election won on narrow grounds is a mandate for something broad. In Bush's case, this includes restructuring Social Security and the tax code and installing a group of judges he was unable to seat in his first term."

The Committee That Runs the World

Is part of the problem that power has become too centralized -- among just two people?

Holly Bailey and Richard Wolffe write in Newsweek about how "the president's relationship with his own party has faltered on the high-profile nomination, as well as other priorities like Social Security. Members of Congress have long complained about the Bushies' imperial attitude. Now, some suggest the White House team -- headed by a former Dick Cheney aide Candi Wolff -- may be too far outside the loop of power. It takes a call from the Committee That Runs the World -- Karl Rove and Cheney -- to lobby Congress effectively. Last week, both were working the phones on Bolton's behalf.

"Whatever happens to Bolton's nomination, his public mauling underscores how the president has struggled in the first 100 days of his second term. On the single issue that seems to trouble voters most -- the high price of gasoline -- Bush found himself in the uncomfortable position of asking for help, first from Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah. On Social Security, Republicans find themselves divided. Then there's the problem of a runaway Congress, diverted by the fate of Tom DeLay, the ethically challenged House Republican leader. Bush tried to regain the initiative with his Thursday-night prime-time news conference. But Republicans hardly cheered at the prospect of selling benefit cuts in Social Security, and Bush himself conceded that he had 'no quick fix' for high gas prices. With his approval ratings slipping, Bush looks like he's running low on his precious supply of political capital."

Or Are Things Turning Around?

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the International Herald Tribune: "The White House and its allies are seeking to build a sense of momentum for President George W. Bush's plan to cut federal benefits to future generations of retirees, who he says will be better off than if Congress fails to act and Social Security ultimately runs short of money to pay full benefits."

Jake Tapper writes for ABC News: "President Bush has proven to be one of the more adept and agile politicians of the modern era. Time and again, he and his political team have shown the ability to turn potential political vulnerabilities -- think 9/11 -- into weapons deftly applied to opponents. . . .

"Could voters come to see this as courage, especially if Democrats are offering no serious alternative solutions?"

Social Security Watch

Bush hasn't expanded on his very short, carefully worded endorsement of "progressive indexing" at Thursday's prime-time press conference.

On Friday, at an event in suburban Virginia, and then again in his Saturday radio address , all Bush would say about that is that "benefits for low-income workers should grow faster than benefits for people who are better off."

Reporters are trying their best to describe what precisely it is that the president appears to be advocating.

That's not necessarily so easy, writes Joel Havemann in the Los Angeles Times. "The latest wrinkle in President Bush's plan to shore up Social Security's finances follows a familiar pattern: Bush and his opponents can't agree on the most basic facts.

"This time, the two sides are at loggerheads over whether the president, in his effort to guarantee the system's solvency, would cut retirees' benefits."

But here's Larry Eichel explaining it nicely in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "On Thursday night, President Bush announced that he'd like to balance Social Security's books by having retirement benefits grow more slowly for the better-off than for people with lower incomes.

"He was endorsing, at least in principle, an idea called 'progressive indexing,' the brainchild of a Boston-based investment executive named Robert C. Pozen.

"And progressive indexing, if enacted, would have a dramatic impact on the vast majority of working Americans.

"In the decades to come, only the poorest 30 percent of retirees would receive the Social Security benefits they're promised under current law.

"Everyone else would get less, a lot less as time goes on, with higher-wage workers seeing the greatest impact in their checks."

Edmund L. Andrews and Eduardo Porter write in the New York Times: "In attempting to fix Social Security's long-term problems without raising taxes, President Bush has chosen to recast the 70-year-old retirement program as one that would keep the lowest-income workers out of poverty but become increasingly irrelevant to the middle class and the affluent. . . .

"But critics, including most Democratic lawmakers, say that such an approach would undermine a central bargain conceived during the New Deal: that Social Security is not just a welfare program for the poor but a form of social insurance that people at all income levels pay into and reap rewards from."

Jackie Calmes has a good question in the Wall Street Journal: "What about benefits for the disabled and workers' underage survivors? Survivor benefits are treated the same as retirees' benefits. It is unclear how disabled benefits would be affected. Currently, at retirement age disabled beneficiaries are reclassified as retirees. If retirement benefits are reduced, so might the disabled beneficiaries' checks. Mr. Bush has said disability benefits won't be cut. But shielding them would undercut his claim to be closing 70% of Social Security's looming deficit. That percentage is based on Mr. Pozen's plan, and one-sixth of Mr. Pozen's proposed savings are from lower disabled benefits."

What's Next?

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "George W. Bush is a well-known risk-taker -- and well-known for not giving up when he has a bee in his bonnet. . . .

"On Tuesday, Bush will hold a 'conversation on strengthening Social Security' at a Nissan manufacturing plant in Canton, Miss., and on Wednesday, Social Security will be the focus when he appears at the Latino Coalition's Small Business Conference here in Washington."

But James Kuhnhenn writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer: "President Bush's latest effort to revive his campaign to revamp Social Security wasn't gaining any converts yesterday on Capitol Hill.

"Instead, it only deepened the chasm between the parties, even as key Republicans announced they would try again to attract Democrats with sweeping new retirement legislation that combines Social Security, pensions and health care. . . .

"The bottom line: Bush's Social Security proposal still looks dead in the water."

John F. Dickerson writes in Time that Bush "hopes that by getting more specific, he will show that his opposition isn't being specific at all. 'The strategic objective here was to ask Democrats, "Where's yours?" ' says a senior White House aide. 'How can they be for protecting the poor and then have a knee-jerk opposition to something that is progressive?' "

And U.S. News reports: "Bush and his senior advisers, it turns out, have gamed out his final position on Social Security, but they still don't want to reveal too much, fearing that the Democrats will use the ideas as still more targets to shoot at. White House aides were desperate to move the Social Security debate off dead center, so they gambled on the news conference as a gambit to shake things up."

Nightline on Press Conference

I went to bed before ABC's Nightline Thursday night, and missed what turned out to be a fascinating segment on the White House press corps and how it compares to the (considerably more belligerent) British press. Ted Koppel had on Dana Milbank of The Washington Post, John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal, and Lionel Barber of the Financial Times.

Here's the video . I wish ABC would post the transcript. Here are a few excerpts.

Koppel: "I made the mistake, Dana, when we were talking just before the broadcast, of saying to you that I hadn't seen any major news in the news conference. And you quickly boxed both my ears and said, what about the $3 trillion cut in Social Security. I thought you were kidding but you -- you swear you're not."

Milbank: "No, I'm not. I mean, obviously, these words didn't come out of the President's mouth tonight. And it's not surprising in the sense that we knew this is the direction he's going in. But when he endorses this progressive indexing plan, he is basically saying we're going to take away three quarters of the $4 trillion shortfall. That's $3 trillion. Okay, it's over 75 years, but that still adds up to a large amount of money. The President will say, look, that's money that we couldn't have paid anyway, so it's not a real cut. But you can be pretty darn sure that the Democrats, tomorrow morning, are going to be calling that a $3 trillion cut.

Koppel: "All right. If that's a $3 trillion cut, and if you're not the only guy in Washington smart enough to have see that. . . . Why didn't anybody stand up and say, whoa, wait a second, Mr. President, what about that $3 trillion cut?"

Later, the Financial Times editor weighed in on that question.

Barber: "Yes the President did show some ankle, so to speak. But none of the reporters went on to, to actually take some chunks at the question and nail down what the news was. They were all too interested in their own little question, before the millions of people around America on camera."

Koppel: "Dana, you -- you used to cover the White House. What would happen to a reporter who went after the President as aggressively as some of those British reporters today went after the Prime Minister? What if someone had said to the President today, 'you know, Mr. President, you still haven't answered the question. You keep evading the question. You keep giving us a reworking of the little speeches that you've been giving all around the country. But you're not addressing the question.' What would happen to that man or woman?

Milbank: "Well, nothing would happen to that man or woman. But he wouldn't or she wouldn't get an answer for it. So, I think it's not a matter of being timid that the reporters don't go after the President. . . . It's a tactical decision. We know this is a very orderly president. If you want to get an answer out of him, you've got to pose sort of an essay question to get him talking off his script. You want to throw him slightly off-message. If you come straight at him with a hostile question, he'll clam up. So, it's something we've learned to adjust to. I don't think it's necessarily in the temperament of reporters. We'd be very happy to be shouting questioning at him. We just know that that's not how we get the result that we want to get."

Card Does the Sunday Shows

Liz Sidoti writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush's chief of staff appealed on Sunday for congressional Democrats to work with the administration and Republicans rather than complain and stall action on Capitol Hill.

"Andrew Card, appearing on three talk shows, also reaffirmed the president's support for House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican whose ties to lobbyists have raised ethics questions, and John R. Bolton, the embattled nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations."

Here are the transcripts of Card speaking with Tim Russert on NBC; Wolf Blitzer on CNN; and Chris Wallace on Fox News.

Here's an excerpt from CNN:

"BLITZER: Let's put some numbers up on the screen. Based on this proposal the president put out on the table Thursday night, if someone makes $35,000 a year right now, plans on hoping to get some retirement funds by the year 2075, which seems like a way, way down the road, right now under the current system they'd be getting $28,000 a year. Under the new system they'd be getting $20,000 a year.

"If they made $58,000 a year, under the current system they'd be getting $36,000 a year at retirement, $21,000 under the new system -- a pretty significant cut. If they are making $90,000 a year, which for a lot of families as you know is middle-class income, right now they could expect $45,000. But under the new system that the president put out, they'd be getting $23,000. Is that something that's fair?

"CARD: Well, you're defining Mr. Pozen's proposal. And the president has not embraced every aspect of the proposal."

Here's an excerpt from NBC:

"MR. RUSSERT: But the vice president was encouraging changing the rules on filibuster. Isn't that breaking the president's word to Harry Reid?

"MR. CARD: The vice president is also the president of the Senate. He's the only individual in our great democracy that is part of the legislative branch and the executive branch. He's part of Article I of the United States Senate, and he's part of Article II as vice president of the United States."

OMB Hijinks

Paul Bedard writes in U.S. News about the White House Office of Management and Budget "annual BE Day, a very off-the-record time when budget examiners use skits to lampoon their political bosses. This year, though, Budget Director Joshua Bolten, his top aides, and even White House Chief of Staff Andy Card played along. Bolten surprised the auditorium packed with OMB staff when he stepped out with his band, the 'Deficit Attention Disorder,' all dressed like the Blues Brothers."

Jeff Gannon Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post about the profile of Jeff Gannon in the upcoming Vanity Fair. "Gannon believes God bestowed a White House assignment on him so that he could atone for past transgressions, Vanity Fair says."

Carol Towarnicky , an editorial writer of the Philadelphia Daily News, excoriates the press for ignoring the Gannon story.

"If a reporter who doubled as a gay hooker had visited the Clinton White House nearly 200 times, think it would have made the news?"

Life of the Party

Since Saturday night's social events had remarkably little to do with the White House, I'm not going to write about them at length here. But if you have questions about the dinner, the pre-parties, and, yes, the very fabulous Bloomberg post-party, I will be glad to entertain them in my Live Online discussion, Wednesday at 1 p.m.

An Administration Adrift?

The press is marking the end of Bush's 60-days of barnstorming on Social Security and the end of the first 100 days of his second term with a multitude of assessments.

John F. Harris and Jim VandeHei write in The Washington Post about the contrast between the heady post-election days and today.

Back then: "Among campaign strategists and academics, there was ample speculation that Bush's victory, combined with incremental gains in the Republican congressional majority, signaled something fundamental: a partisan and ideological 'realignment' that would reshape politics over the long haul."

But now: "As the president passed the 100-day mark of his second term over the weekend, the main question facing Bush and his party is whether they misread the November elections. With the president's poll numbers down, and the Republican majority ensnared in ethical controversy, things look much less like a once-a-generation realignment.

"Instead, some political analysts say it is just as likely that Washington is witnessing a happens-all-the-time phenomenon -- the mistaken assumption by politicians that an election won on narrow grounds is a mandate for something broad. In Bush's case, this includes restructuring Social Security and the tax code and installing a group of judges he was unable to seat in his first term."

© 2005 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive