He was like the wise-cracking guy leading a pack of
vacationers out of the elevator toward the all-you-can-eat buffet bar,
while poking fun at Charlie for getting too much sun on his bald head or
at Mildred for putting on a few extra pounds. The others in the group
titter with nervous amusement, fearing their ribbing will come next.
Like that dominant male on the cruise ship, Bush
exhibits a freedom to mock the appearance of almost anyone, holding up
both American citizens and foreign leaders to public ridicule for how
At a joint White House press conference May 16 with
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, as the two men stood side by
side, Bush slipped in a couple of zingers about Howard’s bald head and
Bush joshed, “Somebody said, ‘You and John Howard
appear to be so close, don’t you have any differences?’ And I said,
‘yes, he doesn’t have any hair.’”
Getting a round of laughs from reporters, Bush
moved on to his next joke: “That’s what I like about John Howard,” Bush
said. “He may not be the prettiest person on the block, but when he
tells you something you can take it to the bank.”
Howard played the role of gracious guest, smiling
and saying nothing in response to the disparaging comments about his
Though many men are very sensitive about losing
their hair, Bush seems to find their baldness a source of humor, a way
to put them in their place.
At a press conference on
Aug. 24, 2001, Bush called on a Texas reporter who had covered Bush as
Texas governor. Bush said the young reporter was “a fine lad, fine lad,”
drawing laughter from the national press corps.
The Texas reporter then
began to ask his question, “You talked about the need to maintain
technological …” But Bush interrupted the reporter to deliver his punch
“A little short on hair,
but a fine lad. Yeah.”
As Bush joined in the
snickering, the young reporter paused and acknowledged meekly, “I am
losing some hair.”
Bush exhibits other physical alpha-male tendencies,
such as when he greets another man by cupping his hand behind the man’s
neck, a sign of both affection and control.
Bush also demonstrates who’s boss by assigning
goofy nicknames, often tied to a person’s appearance. Bush called two
different tall, male reporters “Stretch” before eventually dubbing the
taller one “Super Stretch.”
Over the years, Bush has
regularly poked fun at the looks of both close friends and casual
acquaintances. While Texas governor, Bush lined up for one photo and
fingered the man next to him. “He’s the ugly one!” Bush laughed. [NYT,
Aug. 22, 1999]
Other times, Bush goes beyond playful banter and just tongue-lashes
people who have gotten on his wrong side.
In 1986, for instance, Bush spotted Wall Street Journal political
writer Al Hunt and his wife Judy Woodruff having dinner at a Dallas
restaurant with their four-year-old son. Bush was steaming over Hunt’s
prediction that Jack Kemp – not then-Vice President George H.W. Bush –
would win the Republican presidential nomination in 1988.
Bush stormed up to the table and cursed
Hunt out. “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]
In one of Campaign
2000’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 even seems to take
pleasure from holding power over a person’s life or death.
In an interview with
conservative commentator Tucker Carlson at the start of Campaign 2000,
Bush joked about how condemned murderer Carla Faye Tucker pleaded for
her life with him as Texas governor. “Please don’t kill me,” Bush
whimpered through pursed lips in an imitation of the woman whom Bush put
Later, during a
presidential debate, Bush again made light of people facing the death
penalty in Texas. While arguing against the need for hate-crimes laws,
Bush said the three men convicted of the racially motivated murder of
James Byrd were already facing the death penalty.
“It’s 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 smirk again when discussing people on Death Row.
Over the years, Bush has
gained a reputation, too, for dressing down subordinates.
Former Bush speechwriter
David Frum painted a generally flattering portrait of Bush in the 2003
book, The Right Man, but Frum acknowledged Bush’s autocratic
behavior and harsh humor.
Bush is “impatient and
quick to anger; sometimes glib, even dogmatic; often uncurious and as a
result ill informed,” Frum wrote. When referring to environmentalists,
Bush would call them “green-green lima beans,” according to Frum.
Bush’s hot temper also
has complicated U.S. foreign policy, including the tense relations with
North Korea. During a lectern-pounding tirade before Republican leaders
in May 2002, Bush insulted North Korea’s diminutive dictator Kim Jong Il
by calling him a “pygmy,” Newsweek reported. The slur quickly circulated
around the globe.
While many Bush backers
find his acid tongue and biting humor refreshing – the sign of a
“politically incorrect” politician – some critics contend that Bush’s
off-handed insults fit with a dynastic sense of entitlement toward the
presidency and toward those he rules.
Some observers of the
Bush Family say George W. inherited this imperious style from his
mother, Barbara, more than from his father, George H.W. Bush. Mrs. Bush
is known for flashes of prickly humor, such as describing Democratic
vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 as a word that
“rhymes with rich.”
After Hurricane Katrina
in 2005, Mrs. Bush demonstrated a stunning lack of empathy for the
disaster’s victims, many of whom had lost homes and family members.
While visiting New Orleans evacuees at the Houston Astrodome, she noted
how poor they were before the flood and then quipped, “this is working
very well for them.”
By contrast, George H.W.
Bush is generally gracious in social settings, though he has been known
to hurl insults at his campaign opponents, such as calling Al Gore
“Ozone-Man” in 1992 or dismissing Gore and Bill Clinton as “bozos.”
While always ready to
deliver insults, the Bush family is famously thin-skinned about
receiving them. For instance, George H.W. Bush restricted Newsweek’s
coverage of his 1988 presidential campaign after the magazine published
a cover photo of Bush with the headline, “Fighting the Wimp Factor.”
His eldest son, George
W. Bush, doesn’t even want to take chances with unfriendly audiences. He
routinely has his advance teams and Secret Service details weed out
people from his speeches who might be inclined to heckle him or ask
Indeed, between his pre-screened crowds and his
layers of protectors, Bush has gone through five-plus-years as President
with barely a single note-worthy incident of anyone challenging him to
Unlike alpha males in the wild, Bush has managed to
mark out his territory knowing that virtually nobody – not another head
of state nor a private citizen – is in any position to contest his