Bush: Funny by Mistake and On Purpose

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Friday, August 6, 2004; 12:45 PM

President Bush's misspeak yesterday was simply too much for the press corps to resist.

Here's what Bush said, from the transcript of the bill-signing ceremony: "Our enemies are innovative and resourceful, and so are we. They never stop thinking about new ways to harm our country and our people, and neither do we."

Washington Post columnist Al Kamen writes: "President Bush's battles with the English language are sometimes like a gift that keeps on giving, if not an antidote, then perhaps a palliative to these rather grim times.

"He was in superb form yesterday, offering what may have been his best Bushism ever in a speech at a White House signing ceremony for a $417 billion defense bill."

Carl Hulse writes for the New York Times: "This no doubt confirmed the worst fears of President Bush's most severe critics."

The Associated Press wire story moved with the headline: "New 'Bushism' Born at Bill Signing."

Reuters reports: "President Bush told a roomful of top Pentagon brass on Thursday that his administration would never stop looking for ways to harm the United States."

Ken Herman writes for Cox Newspapers: "While GOP operatives were holding a couple of John Kerry quotes up for public ridicule on Thursday, their own guy was continuing his war on the English language."

Funny on Purpose

But if Bush is sometimes funny by mistake, yesterday also was an example of how he can be funny on purpose.

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the Boston Globe: "Over the years, President Bush has mastered the art of self-deprecating humor on the public stage, routinely sympathizing with crying babies at crowded events and apologizing for showing up to speak instead of his wife.

"But even by his standards, Bush took modest humor to new heights yesterday. In the course of a single event here, Bush compared himself to a hot-air salesman, a lawyer, and a talk-show host -- and hardly bothered to disguise the fact that audience members were there as political props, not as undecided voters trying to make up their minds or glean information about the candidate.

" 'I've asked some citizens to come and help me make my points,' Bush said, before introducing several guests at the 'Ask President Bush' appearance in Columbus."

At one point, Bush asked invited guest Phil Derrow, CEO of Ohio Transmission Corp., to describe his company, which owns and operates air compressor stations.

"And then we sell air to our customers," Derrow said.

"You and I are in the same business," Bush said. "Is it hot air, by any chance?"

Kornbluh writes: "As always, the crowd lapped up his self-deprecating touch, and Bush hunched his shoulders as he laughed at his own joke."

Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers that Bush's demeanor was much more serious early on. "During his opening remarks, Bush choked up as he recalled an Oval Office visit with a group of Iraqi men.

"The visitors had been fitted with artificial hands to replace limbs that had been hacked off by Iraqi authorities during Saddam Hussein's regime. Bush's voice cracked as he explained how one of the men used his artificial hand to write 'God Bless America' in Arabic with the president's pen."

Here's the transcript from the Columbus event.

Looking for Common Ground

Speaking at the Unity: Journalists of Color minority journalism convention this morning, Bush started with flattery.

"You represent a very important profession. It's one that I'm quite familiar with. I appreciate the chance to deal with my press corps on a regular basis. It's a mutual beneficial society, see. I need them to get the message out, and they need me to be a messenger.

"And we're working hard to make sure that our relationship is cordial and professional, and that's how I feel about coming here too, to establish a cordial and professional relationship with people who help spread the news."

The president then ran through a bevy of his standard speechlets.

He started with one that was a clear attempt to find common ground: "You know, look, you can't read a newspaper if you can't read," he said, easing into statements on his education initiatives.

He also noted that his cabinet is diverse. "The people who walk into my office and say 'Mr. President you're not looking so good today,' they're diverse," he said.

Bush also said: "We actually misnamed the war on terror; it ought to be the struggle against ideological extremists who do not believe in free societies, who happen to use terror as a weapon to try to shake the conscience of the free world."

Mark Memmott wrote in USA Today that Kerry's speech at Unity yesterday was received with hearty cheers and a standing ovation.

Today, Bush was greeted with polite and scattered applause, but the applause seemed loudest for some of the pointed questions from journalists.

After Bush said he opposed quotas for minority students, Roland Martin, a syndicated columnist, asked Bush if he opposed legacy as well. Colleges generally give preference to the children of previous graduates.

"I thought you were referring to my legacy," Bush said. "In my case, I had to knock on a lot of doors to follow the old man's footsteps. . . .

"I support colleges affirmatively taking action to get more minorities into their school," he said to cheers. "I support diversity, I don't support quotas. . . . I think colleges ought to use merit."

Bush was heckled at least once by someone who screamed: "Shame on you for lying to the media and deceiving the public."

Terrence Hunt has an early report of the speech for the Associated Press.

Preaching to Who?

Amy Goldstein writes in The Washington Post that as Bush campaigned through two critical Midwestern states yesterday, he made it clear that he wants to make new converts to his cause.

"Please don't overlook discerning Democrats and wise independents, because, like you, they want a safer and stronger and better America," he said in Saginaw, Mich.

"What I am trying to do is arm you up to try to get ready to convince the undecideds," he said in Columbus.

But that doesn't mean he wants any of the unconverted in the audience -- certainly not at the "Ask the President" events where, toward the end of a scripted performance, a few members of the audience are allowed to ask questions.

Goldstein writes: "A Bush-Cheney '04 campaign official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said that tickets for such formats were handed to supporters to ensure the events stay focused on the themes the campaign preferred. But the official said, 'In no way, shape or form are the questions pre-screened.'

"Still, the questions from the audience mirrored Bush's views in support of expanded federal subsidies of religious groups and opposition to same-sex marriage. Five audience members, chosen ahead of time to discuss their work and life choices, exemplified the president's policies."

Elisabeth Bumiller writes in the New York Times that the event "was light on questions but heavy on testimonials from preselected audience members about how the president's policies had improved their lives."

Deb Riechmann writes for the Associated Press: "Bush's trip to Saginaw -- his 18th trip to the Michigan -- reflects the difficulty of an incumbent president campaigning in areas hard-hit by economic problems. . . .

" 'The economy is improving -- it's getting better,' Bush said to several thousands of supporters at a community events center in a section of the state where the unemployment rate went up in June to nearly 8 percent -- above the national rate of 5.6 percent."

Here's the text of his speech.

About Flex Time

Janet Hook and Peter Wallsten write in the Los Angeles Times that Republicans hope that Bush's flex-time proposal "will appeal both to Bush's core business supporters and to swing voters juggling home and work responsibilities." But critics call it "a backdoor effort to deny workers the overtime pay that many depend on to make ends meet."

Today's Calendar

As Bush himself put it at Unity this morning, "I'm off to shake a few hands in New Hampshire -- but what the heck, it's the season, isn't it?"

Actually, it's pretty early in the season, still.

Richard Benedetto writes in USA Today: "In a tight re-election race against an aggressive opponent, President Bush has been forced out of the Rose Garden.

"Incumbent presidents often ease off on campaigning in July and August, preparing for their conventions and the post-Labor Day blitz. Bush hasn't had that luxury."

Kathy Kiely writes in USA Today from New Hampshire: "The president, who will be visiting this community Friday, has a selling job ahead."

Bush speaks at a picnic at Bittersweet Farm in Stratham, N.H., then heads to the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine.

Bush will attend the wedding of his nephew, George P. Bush, who once made People Magazine's list of 100 most eligible bachelors.

Kevin Wack writes in the Portland (Me.) Press Herald that the wedding will take place at St. Ann's Episcopal Church, a 117-year-old stone church just down Ocean Avenue from the family's compound at Walker's Point.

Cheney Opposed Intel Czar in 1992

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "While he was defense secretary in 1992, Vice President Cheney said he would recommend a presidential veto of a bill that would have established a director of national intelligence with authority over the Pentagon's intelligence-collection activities. "

Cheney's 1992 views were detailed in two letters, disclosed by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists.

Flatter Tax Could Be on Bush Agenda

Alan Murray writes in his Political Capital column in the Wall Street Journal: "Tax cuts are for the first term; tax reform is for the second. . . .

"Administration officials are keeping mum about their second-term proposals, and the platform for the GOP convention has yet to be crafted. Still, they acknowledge that tax proposals are on the table. And while a full-blown flat-tax isn't in the cards, a tax-reform plan that moves in that general direction may well be."

Mother of the Hour

"A Bush Aide (and Mother) Is Major Player in Antiterror Campaign" is the headline on David Johnston's profile of Frances Fragos Townsend in the New York Times.

Townsend is Bush's adviser for homeland security, and tells Johnston that being the mother of two little boys "is part of the reason" that she "moved from the shadows to a center stage role as an advocate of raising the threat level with urgent warnings of a possible attack. . . .

"Last weekend, Ms. Townsend was a main White House contact for threat intelligence pouring in from the C.I.A., White House officials said. She was chairwoman of White House meetings with cabinet officers and the heads of intelligence and law enforcement agencies in which officials decided to raise the threat level. Since Monday, in television news appearances, she has defended the administration from criticism that it overreacted to dated intelligence. . . .

"She operates with a sometimes salty, streetwise style that is in sharp contrast to the sleek, buttoned-down world of the Bush White House," Johnston writes.

Townsend works out of the basement of the West Wing and is also deputy national security adviser for counterterrorism, a position once occupied by Richard A. Clarke.

And as luck would have it, she'll be taking questions on the White House Web site today at 3 p.m. ET.

What Should Bush Have Done?

Jill Lawrence writes in USA Today: "Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry told minority journalists Thursday that he would have reacted more quickly to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks than President Bush, who read with a group of children for seven minutes after learning about the second jet hitting the World Trade Center."

Kerry said: "Had I been reading to children and had my top aide whispered in my ear, 'America is under attack,' I would have told those kids very politely and nicely that the president of the United States had something that he needed to attend to -- and I would have attended to it."

Lawrence adds: "White House communications director Dan Bartlett, who was with Bush that day, called Kerry's response 'politics at its worst.' ''

Swift Attack

Jim VandeHei and Mary Fitzgerald write in The Washington Post about Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) coming to John F. Kerry's defense over a new ad that claims the Democratic presidential nominee lied about his military record.

"Asked if the White House was behind it, McCain said: 'I hope not, but I don't know. But I think the Bush campaign should specifically condemn the ad.'

"Soon after, White House spokesman Scott McClellan declined to do so and instead criticized the financing of the ad, saying the president 'deplores all the unregulated soft-money activity.' McClellan said the Bush campaign had nothing to do with the ad or the group behind it. 'We have not and we will not question Kerry's service in Vietnam,' he said.

Why All the Hate?

Gary Alan Fine speculates in an op-ed in The Washington Post today that the intense hatred of presidents stems "not from actions the president took while in office but from images of the president as a young adult."

"Richard Nixon was hated not because of Watergate but because of his role on the House Un-American Activities Committee in the conviction of Alger Hiss in the late 1940s. . . . For Bill Clinton, it was his 'radical, hippie' past that produced ire, long before Monica Lewinsky reached public attention."

And the loathing of the current president, Fine writes, "derives from Bush's seeming life of ease" more than from any actions he has taken as president.

Halliburton Watch

Gretchen Morgenson writes in the New York Times: "Four former finance employees at the Halliburton Company contend that a high-level and systemic accounting fraud occurred at the company from 1998 to 2001, according to a new filing in a class-action lawsuit on behalf of investors who bought the company's shares. . . .

"The charges in the complaint . . . cover the two years when Vice President Dick Cheney was Halliburton's chief executive."

Twins Watch

Anne Schroeder writes in The Washington Post's Names & Faces column: "It's Bush twins mania. (We're beginning to conclude that what Monica Lewinsky was to the Clinton administration, the Bush twins are to their dad's administration: the gift that keeps on giving.).

"Us Weekly reports this week that New York-based Ambassador Promotions has offered the 22-year-olds a possible 'multimillion-dollar' modeling deal."

And swimming sensation Michael Phelps, who Jenna reportedly has a crush on, reportedly thinks Jenna is hot! Watch out, Athens, here they come!

Poll Watch

Bush's approval rating hits an all-time low of 44 percent in the latest Fox News poll, with disapproval at an all-time high of 48 percent. "Bush lost ground among both men and women, but his approval rating also fell seven points among Republicans."

The poll also shows that in a head-to-head match up, Kerry leads Bush 46 percent to 42 percent. At least, that's what the complete poll results show. (The story says Bush has 43 percent.)

Bobbleheads for Bush

Paul Lomartire of Cox News service reports that it was bobblehead election night Monday at seven minor league ballparks. Bush won four states to three, as fans could take home the bobblehead of their candidate of choice.

"Along with Fort Myers, the president won in Charleston, S.C., Hudson Valley, N.Y., and Sioux Falls, S.D. Kerry took Brockton, Mass., New Haven, Conn., and St. Paul, Minn.," Lomartire writes.

This, by the way, from the same promoters who brought "Vasectomy Night" to minor league ball.

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