Monday, May 02, 2005

Desperate White House Wife, Episode 1: The Ranch Hand

The New York Times
May 2, 2005
Desperate White House Wife, Episode 1: The Ranch Hand


When Laura Bush wisecracked at the White House Correspondents' Association's annual dinner on Saturday night that she was a "desperate housewife" married to a president who was always sound asleep by 9 p.m., the popular first lady accomplished two things. She brought down a very tough house, and she humanized her husband, whose sagging poll numbers are no match for her own.

Judging from the laughter in the Washington Hilton ballroom at Mrs. Bush's words - "George's answer to any problem at the ranch is to cut it down with a chain saw, which I think is why he and Cheney and Rumsfeld get along so well" - Mrs. Bush has a future in political stand-up comedy.

Whether her cheeky one-liners will shore up her husband as he struggles with Social Security, gas prices and combative Democrats is another question entirely.

But her zingers showed how much the White House relies on her to soften her husband's rough edges at critical moments, much as she did with her extensive travels and fund-raising in the 2004 campaign.

"The deprecation of her husband was eye-popping," said Kenneth M. Duberstein, a chief of staff in Ronald Reagan's White House, who had a front-row seat at the dinner. "Every husband and wife who hears the story that she told about him last night, that he's asleep at 9 p.m., can relate to that. And if you can get people to relate to you as president, it's a step forward. Last night George Bush became more likable because of his wife."

Mrs. Bush made fun of not only her husband (and Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld) but also her mother-in-law, the former first lady Barbara Bush, whom she likened to Don Corleone in "The Godfather." In front of 2,500 guests, she described time spent at her in-laws' summer home in Maine like this: "First prize, 3 days' vacation with the Bush family. Second prize, 10 days."

White House officials cast Mrs. Bush's performance as an attempt at fun, not a political calculation, although they said the idea came from one of the more shrewd political animals at the White House, President Bush. "Honest, the president just said: 'Why don't you try to do it this time? Let's mix it up a little bit,' " Susan Whitson, the first lady's press secretary, said after the dinner. "This was the first opportunity that she's had to show the press corps and the rest of the world that side of her."

The first lady's lines were written by Landon Parvin, a longtime Washington speechwriter who does jokes for Mr. Bush and who wrote both comedy and serious speeches for Ronald Reagan. More to the point, Mr. Parvin wrote the lyrics to "Secondhand Clothes," the song-and-dance routine that Nancy Reagan performed to the tune of "Secondhand Rose" at the 1982 Gridiron dinner in Washington.

That performance, which lampooned the first lady's taste in designers, was a hit after a string of public relations disasters, from Mrs. Reagan's supervision of the purchase of a $200,000 set of White House china to the trunkloads of dresses she took for a week of partying at the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana. Press coverage of Mrs. Reagan was subsequently more positive, and "Secondhand Clothes" is still cited as a reason.

In Mrs. Bush's case, playing off "Desperate Housewives" was a natural, even though Ms. Whitson said that Mrs. Bush had never actually seen the racy ABC hit show. Ms. Whitson said the first lady had heard about the characters and plot from the Bush twins, Jenna and Barbara, who are fans, and was planning to watch the entire first season on a DVD she has at home.

Ms. Whitson said Mr. Parvin sat down with the first lady some weeks ago to work out ideas. He then wrote a script and helped Mrs. Bush with her timing and delivery over several days of rehearsals, including one run-through shortly before the dinner. The first lady went on right after dessert, as Mr. Bush was at the lectern launching into the traditional presidential stand-up routine, in this case rehashing some of his worst jokes from the 2004 campaign.

Mrs. Bush suddenly got up and "interrupted" her husband, saying, "Not that old joke; not again." Then she added, as the audience laughed: "I've been attending these dinners for years and just quietly sitting there. I've got a few things I want to say for a change."

Ms. Whitson said that while Mr. Bush was in on the setup, he did not know what his wife would say. He reacted mostly by cackling with a beet-red face, including when his wife said, "George, if you really want to end tyranny in the world, you're going to have to stay up later."

Mr. Parvin, who said in an interview before the dinner that writing a speech about the Iran-contra scandal was a lot easier than humor, termed self-deprecating jokes essential for presidents. As a joke writer, he said that his most important task was to meld personality and topicality.

"First of all, you get the person's character in your head," he said. "But a lot depends on what's going on at the time. It's just a feeling that's in the air. So you take that feeling and distill it down to lines that reflect the perception of that person's character."

Or as Mrs. Bush noted on Saturday night about her husband and the ranch in Texas: "George didn't know much about ranches when we bought the place. Andover and Yale don't have real strong ranching programs. 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."

Mr. Cheney did not escape the first lady, either. "It's always very interesting to see how the ranch air invigorates people when they come down from Washington," she said. "Recently, when Vice President Cheney was down, he got up early one morning, he put on his hiking boots and he went on a brisk 20- to 30-foot walk."

Mr. Parvin said there was an advantage to writing for presidents and, by extension, their wives - because it's easier to get a laugh. "I noticed it first with Reagan," Mr. Parvin said. "Reagan would come into the East Room, and he would have a little throwaway line, and it would get a laugh, and it wouldn't have gotten a laugh with most people. What it did was break the tension. It's the unexpected, I guess. People don't expect presidents to be funny."

Guests at the White House press dinner said the unexpected was a big part of Mrs. Bush's success. "It came as a complete surprise, and she knocked everybody's socks off," said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, who attended the dinner as a guest of The New York Post.

As for the political benefit to the president, Mr. Schumer said: "It's not going to make everybody say, 'We're for Social Security privatization now.' But around the edges, it helps."

Mr. Parvin, 56, who writes mostly for Republicans but also for Democrats he likes, like Bill Clinton's friend Vernon Jordan, agreed that presidential humor was "not important" in the scheme of things.

On the other hand, it can't hurt. "Everybody wants to do well," Mr. Parvin said. "Someone said humor is like standing up naked in front of an audience, then turning around and saying, 'What do you think?' "