Laura Bush Talks Naughty


Published: May 3, 2005

The New York Times

hen King Agamemnon and his fleet of warships were becalmed in the Aegean Sea, he ordered his wife to fetch their daughter so she could be sacrificed to the gods. It worked, sort of. The winds picked up and blew the Greek ships to triumph at Troy, although Agamemnon's wife did murder him later.

Republican presidents rely on a slightly less cruel sacrificial ritual for their problems. Their wives appease the media gods with comedy routines.

Each spring, when politicians and reporters convene for formal dinners that are supposed to be funny and are often compared to root canals, they talk about Nancy Reagan's "Secondhand Clothes" the way fans talk about the 1927 Yankees. The Reagans' image for conspicuous consumption was never the same after Mrs. Reagan put on rags in 1982 to sing a lampoon of her spending habits.

But on Saturday night, Laura Bush set a new standard. After interrupting her husband and telling him to sit down, she did a stand-up routine that included what was probably the first joke told in earshot of a president that involved him and a horse's phallus.

Mrs. Bush called her husband Mr. Excitement for going to bed by 9 o'clock and turning her into a "desperate housewife." She said that Lynne Cheney's Secret Service code name became Dollar Bill after they both went to Chippendales (where they ran into Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg). Noting that Andover and Yale did not have "real strong ranching programs," she said Mr. Bush had started his ranching career by trying to milk a horse - a male horse.

Her timing had the audience howling, and the edgier lines had them gasping. Jokes about pent-up sexual frustration from a prim librarian? With her born-again husband sitting there and enjoying it? And cameras recording it for Republican preachers who are determined to get sex out of schools and off television?

For the mainly Democratic audience - this was a crowd of Washington journalists and luminaries from Hollywood and Manhattan - it was an evening of cognitive dissonance. How to reconcile this charming image on stage with the Bush they love to bash?

Mrs. Bush's performance, and her husband's reaction, wasn't a shock to the reporters who cover the White House. For years they have tried to convince their friends outside Washington that Mr. Bush is actually not a close-minded dolt, and Mrs. Bush is no Stepford Wife or Church Lady. Yes, they're Texans who go to church and preach family values, but they're not yahoos or religious zealots.

The coverage of Mrs. Bush's comic debut may change some minds, but for devout Bush-bashers, it's much easier to stay the course. If you live in a blue-state stronghold, a coastal city where you can go 24 hours without meeting any Republicans, it's consoling to think of the red staters as an alien bunch of strait-laced Bible thumpers.

Otherwise, how do you explain why they're Republican? Or answer the question Democrats asked in astonishment when they saw Mr. Bush's vote totals: Who are these people?

The favorite Democratic explanation is that the red staters are hicks who have been blinded by righteousness, as Thomas Frank argues in "What's the Matter With Kansas?" He laments that middle-class Kansans are so bamboozled by moral issues like abortion and school prayer that they vote for Republicans even though the Republican tax-cutting policies are against their self-interest.

But middle-class Americans don't simply cast ballots for Republicans. They also vote with their feet, which is why blue states and old Democratic cities are losing population to red states and Republican exurbs. People are moving there precisely because of economic reasons - more jobs, affordable houses and the lower taxes offered by Republican politicians.

They're not moving for the churches, and they don't vote for Mr. Bush simply because he reads the Bible every day. One of the main reasons they like him is that he gets bashed so often. When Jon Stewart sneers at him, they empathize because they're used to being sneered at themselves.

They know what their image is in Manhattan and Hollywood, and they know they're not all that different from the Democrats in those places. They, too, watch "Desperate Housewives," and they're not surprised to hear Laura Bush doing Chippendales jokes. They've spent their own dollar bills there. They don't see anything the matter with that - or with themselves.