Last night, George W. Bush attended his final Gridiron Dinner in Washington, D.C. No, this is not football-related, but rather a longtime, quasi-secret annual gathering of journalists and politicians, who perform skits or sing. Bush last night surprised the attendees by warbling "Green Green Grass of Home," about returning to Texas for good, changing the lyrics to "Brown Brown Grass of Home."
Some might suggest a more apt tune could be "If I Only Had a Brain." But at least he didn' t joke about never finding those dang WMD in Iraq.
For years, presidents have been attending the annual dinners of media correspondents in Washington, accepting some good-natured ribbing (to show they are human) and dishing out some of their own. Usually, in the past, it was not highly charged, but those hoots rarely occurred during war time, and charges against the media for excessive cronyism were rarely heard back then.
This began to change four years ago, in March 2004, when Bush joked about missing WMDs, followed two years later by the famous Stephen Colbert in-his-face mockery of both the president and the pundits (which I cover extensively in my new book, see below).
So let's go back to one of the low points of the Bush presidency -- and the U.S. media.
It was a classic Washington moment. The date: March 24. The setting: The 60th annual black-tie dinner of the Radio and Television Correspondents Association (with many print journalists there as guests) at the Hilton. On the menu: surf and turf. Attendance: 1500. The main speaker: President Bush, one year into the Iraq war, with 500 Americans already dead.
Bush, as usual at such gatherings of journalists, poked fun at himself. Great leeway is granted to presidents (and their spouses) at such events, allowing them to offer somewhat tasteless or even off-color barbs. Audiences love to laugh along with, rather than at, a president, for a change. It's all in good fun, except when it's bad fun, such as on this night.
Because in the middle of his stand-up routine before the (perhaps tipsy) journos, Bush showed on a screen behind him some candid on-the-job photos of himself. One featured him gazing out a window, as Bush narrated, smiling: "Those weapons of mass destruction have got to be somewhere." According to the transcript this was greeted with "laughter and applause."
A few seconds later, he was shown looking under papers, behind drapes, and even under his desk, with this narration: "Nope, no weapons over there" (met with more "laughter and applause"), and then "Maybe under here?" (just "laughter" this time).
Still searching, he settled for finding a photo revealing the Skull and Bones secret signal.
The Washington Post seemed to find this something of a howl. Jennifer Frey's report, carried on the front page of the Style section -- under the headline, "George Bush, Entertainer in Chief" -- led with Donald Trump's appearance, and mentioned without comment Bush's "recurring joke" of searching for the WMD.
The Associated Press review was equally jovial: "President Bush poked fun at his staff, his Democratic challenger and himself Wednesday night at a black-tie dinner where he hobnobbed with the news media." In fact, it is hard to find any immediate account of the affair that raised questions about the president's slide show. Many noted that the WMD jokes were met with general and loud laughter.
The reporters covering the gala were apparently as swept away with laughter as the guests. One of the few attendees to criticize the president's gag, David Corn of The Nation, told me he heard not a single complaint from his colleagues at the after-party. Corn wondered if they would have laughed if President Reagan, following the truck bombing of our Marines barracks in Beirut, which killed 241, had said at a similar dinner: "Guess we forgot to put in a stop light."
The backlash, such as it was, that emerged later came not from many in the media, but from Democrats -- and some Iraq veterans. But I did not expect to hear or read any second thoughts from most attendees. After all, many of them also sold the public a bill of goods on WMD. No joke.
NOTE This and other controversies are fully probed in my brand-new book, So Wrong for So Long: How the Press, the Pundits -- and the President -- Failed on Iraq (Union Square Press), the first five-year history of the war, and much more.
A video of the Bush WMD routine is up at my blog: