When presidents appear appear at the annual Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner, it’s traditional for them to tell a few jokes. But when George W. Bush appeared last week (3/24/04), he made a series of “jokes” about the failure to find the weapons of mass destruction that had been the central justification of his invasion of Iraq. Part of Bush’s routine included slides showing administration officials looking around the White House for something. “Those weapons of mass destruction must be somewhere,” Bush explained while showing one of the images, which elicited laughter from the audience of politicians and media figures.
Interestingly, Bush’s comments were hardly controversial to the Beltway press corps, which seemed to write it off as harmlessly “self-deprecating” humor. Many of the press accounts the next day did not raise questions about Bush’s humorous reference to his administration’s bogus rationale for a war that has cost thousands of lives– American and Iraqi. For the media, such humor was expected. “Well, every night we hear people on TV telling jokes about President Bush, but last night it was the president’s turn to tell jokes about the president,” CBS anchor Julie Chen explained (3/25/04), adding that “at least someone’s making jokes about it other than the late-night talk show hosts.”
CNN’s American Morning show on March 25 provided a glimpse at the gulf between the media reaction and the public response to Bush’s sense of humor. After playing some clips from Bush’s speech, CNN anchor Bill Hemmer mentioned that “there was a slideshow shown a little later. Maybe we’ll get to that later in our broadcast. There were some good funny lines in that, too.”
But once CNN aired Bush’s weapons jokes, its audience saw what the anchors and correspondents missed. CNN anchor Soledad O’Brien announced that the program was getting a surprisingly negative stream of emails from viewers, and asked Hemmer what the reaction at the dinner had been. He explained: “I think the reception was pretty receptive, for lack of a better phrase. I can understand what you’re hearing. There was a little rumbling about whether or not it was sensitive enough to the reality that we all know two and a half years later, also with the situation in Iraq as well. But overall, I think it was a speech that was given a way where the president tried to show a sense of humor, and I think, for the most part, it was taken that way.” As the morning wore on, CNN co-anchor Jack Cafferty read numerous messages from outraged viewers, and characterized the reaction as “overwhelmingly” negative.
Hemmer wasn’t the only journalist left searching for some explanation for Bush’s jokes. Appearing that evening on CNN, Time magazine’s Joe Klein was forgiving: “Look, this is going to be a long, ugly election year. And I think the president should be allowed to have a little humor. There are certain ground rules that obtain at those kinds of dinners that you were at last night. And, you know, it doesn’t upset me overly much.”
NBC’s Washington bureau chief Tim Russert defended Bush’s comments, explaining on the Today show (3/26/04) that while Democrats and military families might be critical, “rather than be judgmental, let me just step back. Ironically, for me the exact same joke was told to me two weeks ago by a very rabid anti-war Democrat. In the context of that evening, after the president made those jokes, he had very emotional comments about the military in Iraq…. So if you look at the evening in the totality, the people who were there I don’t think came away with some of the same conclusions as people who just heard snippets on the radio or television.”
David Corn of The Nation magazine was one of the few journalists openly critical of Bush, writing on The Nation’s website: “This was a callous and arrogant display. For Bush, the misinformation– or disinformation– he peddled before the war was no more than material for yucks. As the audience laughed along, he smiled. The false statements (or lies) that had launched a war had become merely another punchline in the nation’s capital.” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews also seemed appalled by the media’s reaction (3/25/04): “Well, there’s four or five cases where the president told a yuck about the fact he couldn’t find weapons of mass destruction, and the press being supportive in their laughter. Maybe sycophantic, but they laughed.”
Perhaps it’s no surprise that the conservative Fox News Channel would defend Bush’s comments, but Fox’s line of defense at times became arguably more offensive than the remarks themselves. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace, after admitting that “I must say, I still think it’s funny,” introduced the subject (3/28/04) by saying that “the day after, some Democrats and the families of some American soldiers in Iraq, some who died in Iraq, said they were offended by this kidding about the missing weapons of mass destruction.” Fox anchor (and weekend pundit) Brit Hume immediately segued from this into an attack on those who look for “a platform to seek victim status, and one of the qualifications for that is that you have these exquisitely tender feelings about things and sensibilities which are easily offended. And in America today, if your sensibilities are offended by something that has happened, you get an enormous amount of credibility and are taken very seriously.” After seeming to thus refer to the families of dead and wounded soldiers as a bunch of crybabies, Hume concluded: “I thought it was a good-natured performance, and it made him look good only in the sense that it showed he could poke fun at himself…. And you have to feel like saying to people, ‘Just get over it.'”
Fellow Fox pundit Juan Williams agreed: “I was sitting there at a table where everybody was laughing. I think you were at the same table, Chris…. So I think people are petty in the situation. I just think it’s evidence that it’s a political season.” Panelist Ceci Connolly of the Washington Post offered praise for Bush’s comedic gifts: “You know, trying to be funny at these things is so difficult, and he is quite good at it. I mean, he really is very good at self-deprecating humor. The pictures were funny. I laughed at the photos. I mean, he looks goofy, and he’s got that great deadpan delivery.” Connolly added that “perhaps it was an insight into how seriously he takes the fact that we have yet to find weapons of mass destruction.”
Fox News house liberal Alan Colmes, commenting on his own show (Hannity & Colmes, 3/25/04), wasn’t offended by Bush either, since “the joke was on him because he hasn’t found the WMDs.”
But you didn’t have to work for Fox News to go to bat for Bush. The Los Angeles Times penned an editorial in his defense (3/27/04) headlined “Commander in Comedy.” The paper noted that “presidents have always used self-deprecation to deflect criticism,” then lamented the fact that “Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe and other Democrats are acting like laughs should be banned from serious politics.” The paper also made this odd comparison: “Democrats saying that Bush can’t joke about it without insulting soldiers is like the GOP claiming that Democrats can’t oppose the war and be patriotic.”
The problem is not that *someone* told a joke about WMD. It’s that as the chief purveyor of the WMD falsehood, which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis, it is beyond bad taste for *George W. Bush* to joke about WMD. It’s the difference between a comedian making a joke about O.J. Simpson looking for Nicole Brown Simpson’s “real killer,” and *O.J. Simpson* making the same joke.