|The Nossiter Net
The net that shall enmesh them all
Edited, Written, and Published by Josh Nossiter
Tuesday, April 4th, 2006
|The Nossiter Net is cast to snare some of the riper rascalities of the day. Comments? firstname.lastname@example.org|
|Abraham Lincoln loved nothing better than regaling an audience with humorous stories. In her Team of Rivals, Doris Kearns Goodwin tells of how he was so good at storytelling, entire towns would turn out to hear him during his days as a circuit lawyer in Illinois. Franklin Roosevelt unwound from the pressures of leading the nation through WWII by mixing martinis for friends and staff of an evening, chasing the cocktails with amusing tales, drolly told in his patrician baritone. On his expedition up an unexplored Brazilian river, Candace Millard writes in River of Doubt, Theodore Roosevelt sometimes tried the patience of his fellow expeditioners with his nonstop anecdotes. Richard Nixon, as the White House tapes revealed, had an inexhaustible supply of expletives at his command. Clinton was famous for his prolific, if not always riveting, verbosity. Ronald Reagan – well, he liked to watch movies.
No matter. In the great tradition of presidential raconteuring, George W. Bush has been told to discard the buttoned-down, tight-lipped, on-message style of the first six years of his presidency, and to let his hair down. Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post that Mr. Bush’s new approach is unscripted, and rich in "towel-snapping, frat boy" jocularity.* His handlers, Baker reports, have apparently decided that with approval ratings in the low thirties, Mr. Bush has nothing to lose, and nowhere to go but up in the polls.
This page is not so sure. Raconteurs as varied as Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, and even Clinton, were distinguished by a certain verbal dexterity, a deft-tongued ability to improvise on their feet, to weave a web of spoken words with which to delight supporters, defuse enemies, and ensnare the unwary. Hitherto, Mr. Bush has not displayed a like faculty. Furthermore, the aforementioned presidents had a literary gift, a talent for employing words effectively. Even Reagan wrote pretty good letters, and at least Nixon could cuss impressively. The only literary enterprise associated with Mr. Bush is the reading aloud of My Pet Goat. Although so enthralled with the story that even the whispered report of the 9/11 attacks failed to interrupt the reading, by itself this incident is not proof of Mr. Bush’s high literary purpose.
We worry, therefore, about Mr. Bush being unloosed on an unsuspecting public. An additional complication: Texas humor is not necessarily considered funny by the rest of the world. Imagine Mr. Bush, for example, telling an audience of recently naturalized citizens, such as the one he addressed in Washington recently, that “Now, I’ve got nothing against immigrants. I think every family should own one.” Or speaking before the Anti-Defamation league, and telling them humorously “Now, my hometown of Houston, it used to be a pretty good town, at least ‘till all them Rubens and Abrahams started running around.”**
Mr. Bush is perfectly capable of visiting Poland and joking that he’s just come from his hotel, where he completed “the Polish triathlon: sauna, steam, and shower.” Or meeting with Jacques Chirac, and asking him “How many Frenchman does it take to defend Paris? Dunno. It’s never been tried!” Or stopping in Sydney and wondering aloud if walking upside down all the time makes Australians dizzy.
And what if Mr. Bush were to address the House of Commons in London, the most vocal, most verbal, audience in the world? We can imagine him trying to warm up that especially tough crowd with a story filled with local color:
"An Irishman is having a quiet pint in a pub, and three Englishmen walk in and decide to provoke him. So the first Englishman goes over and says 'St. Patrick was a thief.' And the Irishman quietly drinks his pint. So the second Englishman goes over and says 'St. Patrick was a pederast.' The Irishman keeps on sipping his pint. So the third Englishman goes over to him and says 'St. Patrick, he was an Englishman!' And the Irishman looks up and replies 'I know. That’s what your friends have been trying to tell me.'"***
No, it just won’t do. Mr. Bush must be kept on-message, and thoroughly buttoned-down. The alternative is national embarrassment and humiliation. Of course, Mr. Bush’s handlers may have concluded that this administration has already generated so much of both, a little more can scarcely matter…
**Actual quotes from Texans, as transcribed by the Ed. Though not uttered by Mr. Bush, at least on the record, they are representative of Texas jocularity.
***Apologies to Michael Black, singer and storyteller.
©Joshua C. Nossiter, 2006
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