When Presidential Humor Attacks
The right-wing blogosphere is predictably abuzz in the wake of President Obama's shockingly insensitive off-the-cuff joke comparing his bowling to the Special Olympics. Following as it did Joe Biden's request at a rally last year that a wheelchair bound man "stand up," Obama's unfortunate appearance with Jay Leno isn't going to help matters for the new White House. Of course, when it comes to thoughtless presidential humor, George W. Bush was the master. As his teasing of children, the blind, the disabled, U.S. soldiers and blacks long ago revealed, President Bush laughed at the expense of most Americans.
Among the more innocuous episodes of Bush humor gone wrong was his failed outreach to America's youth during a July 2007 event in Cleveland. There he made only one person cry:
Jessica Hackerd, a "13-year old blonde-headed girl," asked Bush what his "next step with the immigration bill" will be. "Mr. Bush's sarcastic reply - a wry 'yeah, thanks' - drew laughter from the crowd of 400. But the attention caused young Jessica...to immediately tear up. 'No, it's a great question. No, I appreciate that,' Mr. Bush said, as he saw Jessica's reaction.'
That, as they say, was just Bush being Bush. In May 2006, President Bush made a bizarre remark which charmed disability advocates everywhere. Pitching his troubled Medicare prescription plan in Florida, President Bush said to a man in a wheelchair, "You look mighty comfortable." Six weeks later, Bush chided Los Angeles Times reporter Peter Wallsten, who is afflicted with Stargardt's disease and legally blind, for wearing sunglasses during the President's press conference:
THE PRESIDENT: Are you going to ask that question with shades on?
WALLSTEN: I can take them off.
THE PRESIDENT: I'm interested in the shade look, seriously.
WALLSTEN: All right, I'll keep it, then.
THE PRESIDENT: For the viewers, there's no sun.
WALLSTEN: I guess it depends on your perspective.
George W. Bush's schadenfreude streak allows him to pleasure in the plight of the guilty and innocent alike. In 1999, Governor Bush laughed off his looming execution of Karla Faye Tucker, mimicking with condemned death row inmate with his trademark smirk, "Please don't kill me!" And while pitching his Social Security privatization scheme in February 2005, President Bush told a 57 year-old woman who described working three jobs that her story was "uniquely American" and "fantastic."
It was during that same failed campaign to sell his plan to undo Social Security that President Bush displayed his great pleasure in perpetuating stereotypes of African-Americans. President Bush used his January 12, 2005 town hall meeting to sell his Social Security privatization plan to a hand-picked African-American audience:
"Another interesting idea...is a personal savings account...which can't be used to bet on the lottery, or a dice game, or the track.
"Secondly, the interesting -- there's a -- African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people."
As Perrspectives has detailed before, when it comes to George W. Bush's sense of humor, the joke is on us. In October 2000, then candidate Bush used the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York to make light of the nation's yawning income gap, laughing "This is an impressive crowd - the haves and the have-mores. Some people call you the elites; I call you my base." In March 2006, Bush chided the press for its coverage of Dick Cheney, joking "Good Lord, you'd thought he shot somebody or something." The President tried to shrug off his Katrina disaster and the embarrassing Dubai ports deal at Lynne Cheney's expense, "Lynne, I think you're doing a heck of a job. Although I have to say you dropped the ball big time on that Dubai deal."
But it was Bush's presentation at the 2004 Radio and Television Correspondents Association Dinner showed truly his contempt for the truth and for the suffering of the American people. His tasteless White House slideshow made light of the lack of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Coming one year and hundreds of American dead and wounded after the invasion of Iraq, President Bush the cut-up hoped to regale the audience with his White House hijinx. As David Corn of The Nation reported:
Bush notes he spends "a lot of time on the phone listening to our European allies." Then we see a photo of him on the phone with a finger in his ear. But at one point, Bush showed a photo of himself looking for something out a window in the Oval Office, and he said, "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." The audience laughed. I grimaced. But that wasn't the end of it. After a few more slides, there was a shot of Bush looking under furniture in the Oval Office. "Nope," he said. "No weapons over there." More laughter. Then another picture of Bush searching in his office: "Maybe under here." Laughter again.
As it turns out, of course, President Bush can dish it out but he can't take it. When Stephen Colbert hilariously lampooned the President during his 2006 White House Correspondents Association dinner, a stone-faced Bush could barely muster a handshake.
As for President Obama, he was quick to apologize for his thoughtless comment Thursday, praising the Special Olympics as "a wonderful program that gives an opportunity to shine to people with disabilities from around the world." As well he should; the struggles of people with disabilities are no laughing matter.
As for George W. Bush, now as it was for eight long years, the joke was on all of us.
UPDATE: The Special Olympics has issued a statement noting that President Obama called to apologize and "was sincere and heartfelt, and said that he is a fan of our movement and is ready to work with our athletes to make the United States a more accepting and welcoming country for all people with special needs."