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Bush: 'Alpha Male on the Cruise Ship'

By Robert Parry
May 18, 2006

When future historians scratch their heads and wonder how George W. Bush came to lead the world’s most powerful nation at the start of the Twenty-First Century, it might help them to know that many Americans found his type familiar – and thus reassuring. Bush was the alpha male on the cruise ship.

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 they look.

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 supposed homeliness.

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 physical appearance.

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 line:

“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.”

Tart Tongue

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 to death.

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.

Quick Temper

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 hostile questions.

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 his face.

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 supremacy.


Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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